It should have been easy, traveling through Argentina, to find a bottle of soy sauce. My sons, born and raised in Asia, have a habit of seasoning their food with a few drops of it, and Argentina happens to be one of the world’s leading producers of soybeans. Flying over the country’s heartland — the fertile expanse known as the pampa húmeda — we could see endless fields of the legume. Over the past three decades, soybeans have gone from being a tiny part of Argentina’s agriculture-dependent economy to occupying nearly 50 percent of its cultivated land. Yet in every restaurant we visited, my sons’ requests for soy sauce were met with a quizzical look and a shrug: No hay. (“There is none.”)
The vast majority of Argentina’s soy products are exported, mostly to China. Rising Asian demand — for soy sauce, tofu, animal feed — has fueled the explosion of the soybean industry across Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The pattern is a familiar one for Argentina. A century ago, it became one of the world’s wealthiest countries on a per-capita basis by shipping the pampa’s abundant yields of grain and beef to Europe. The opulent 1929 Beaux-Arts building that houses the Board of Trade in Rosario, Argentina’s agricultural capital, evokes those days of grandeur. Today, however, it is the price of soybean futures that dominates the electronic tickers on the wall. Last year, Argentina exported $17 billion in soybean products, more than a quarter of its overall export earnings. Half the ships leaving the country are now full of soy goods — beans, meal, oil, etc. — and heading to Asia. “The old saying in Argentina is still true: ‘With a good harvest, we are saved,’ ” says Patricia Bergero, the board’s deputy director for economic research. “Our economy is very dependent on soybeans and China — perhaps too dependent.”
The beans, however, are just the beginning. Over the past decade, China has more than doubled its overall trade with Latin America and the Caribbean, to $244 billion in 2017, elevating China past the United States as the region’s top trading partner, a stunning development in America’s own backyard. Early on, China focused on gobbling up the resources it needed to feed its voracious economy: oil from Venezuela and Ecuador, copper and iron from Peru and Chile, soybeans from Brazil and Argentina. In the past few years, though, Chinese engagement has spread and deepened, especially with left-leaning governments that are in financial trouble and looking for an alternative to American influence. In Argentina, the president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, turned to China in 2014 after her government defaulted on $100 billion of international debt. In addition to offering $11 billion in currency swaps to increase Argentina’s depleted reserves, China began rebuilding a rail line across Argentina’s agricultural heart, constructing two hydroelectric dams and erecting a space station in the arid plateau of northern Patagonia.
When the conservative businessman Mauricio Macri succeeded Kirchner in December 2015, he seemed eager to do something few other leaders have dared: to push China away. Macri immediately suspended construction of the two dams in southern Patagonia, citing the lack of transparency and environmental impact surveys. Three months later, the Argentine Coast Guard sank a Chinese fishing boat that refused to leave the country’s territorial waters. The resistance didn’t last long. Not only did China quickly reduce its soybean imports by 30 percent in the first seven months of Macri’s government, but Chinese officials also reminded Macri that its investments in Argentina were linked. The dam contracts even had default clauses stipulating that the suspension of work would trigger the suspension of China’s railroad project, too. It was all or nothing. Did Macri want to end up with nothing?