By Cassandra Garrison
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - As Argentina was scrambling to introduce emergency measures to insulate its ailing economy from the coronavirus last week, the Chinese ambassador paid a visit to the home of President Alberto Fernandez to discuss an offer.
At the meeting in the wealthy Olivos suburb of Buenos Aires, ambassador Zou Xiaoli laid out how the Asian giant was ready to help Argentina face the pandemic: donating masks, gloves, thermometers and protective suits.
The donations, welcomed by Fernandez's government, show how China is leveraging its production of medical equipment and expertise in halting the coronavirus as a soft-power tool in regions like South America, where it is jostling for influence against the United States.
From Argentina to Mexico, Brazil to Peru, Latin American nations have accepted offers of support from China as the number of coronavirus cases across the region has climbed, amid growing fears about the preparedness of their healthcare systems.
There have been nearly 500,000 confirmed cases worldwide of the virus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, and over 20,000 deaths.
Although South America has so far not been as hard hit as other parts of the world, experts fear that may change as winter arrives in the southern hemisphere.
"Some countries in the region have reached out to China asking for help," a Chinese official in Buenos Aires, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. "We will share with them our experience in combating COVID-19 and offer sanitary materials within our capacity."
As trade tensions between Washington and Beijing have simmered in recent years, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has warned Latin American nations that they should be wary of becoming too economically reliant on China - to little avail.
In Argentina, the region's third-largest economy, China has made steady in-roads, from solar power investments to the construction of a new space monitoring station. It has supplied over $17 billion of financing since 2007, Inter-American Dialogue data shows. China has also become the top consumer of Argentine soybeans and beef.
As the coronavirus spread in China, Argentina's new left-leaning leader Fernandez - who took office in December - exchanged correspondence with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In letters seen by Reuters, Fernandez offered solidarity to China in February as the virus raged from the outbreak center of Wuhan. In March, Xi replied that the situation in China was improving and he called for a deepening of ties between the two nations.
Days later, the Chinese embassy announced its donations, posting pictures on Twitter of large trucks carrying a mobile hospital that was set up within a military base near the Argentine capital.
"China will continue to help in all possible channels. Long live friendship!" the embassy said on Twitter.
The help came at a difficult time for Argentina, which is grappling with a severe economic crisis and re-negotiating $110 billion in foreign debt with creditors, including the International Monetary Fund.
"This is part of the link we have with China, which is a solid relationship of mutual respect and ties that go beyond strong trade," a spokesman for Argentina's foreign ministry told Reuters, when asked about the donations.
China's aid to Latin America reflects a broader global trend, as Beijing looks to steer the narrative away from it being the country where the coronavirus started and was initially downplayed. Instead, China wants to be seen as spearheading the global fight against the pandemic, experts say.
Luo Zhaohui, a vice minister at China's foreign ministry, said at a news conference in Beijing on Thursday that the country would "ride out the storm with people from other countries, strengthen cooperation and strive to win the last victory in the fight against the virus."
While Trump has been criticized by opponents for branding the pandemic 'the Chinese virus,' China has won praise among Latin American governments that have accepted its help. The Chinese government said it has supplied test kits, protective suits and other forms of medical aid to more than 80 countries and international organizations.
"It's remarkable and a credit, in a way, to China's own commanding control of information that it's been able to re-envision itself as a leader in the fight against coronavirus globally," said Margaret Myers, director of the China and Latin American program at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
Myers said the recent re-start of Chinese industry, as cases have subsided, has enabled the country to be a provider of key products as the rest of the world's production slows.
"This will create opportunities for China in the coming years," she said.
The United States, meanwhile, is struggling with its own battle to contain the virus, with the World Health Organization warning on Tuesday that the country could become a new epicenter of the crisis.
Before the epidemic hit hardest, Washington in February pledged $100 million towards international efforts in combating COVID-19, including for developing nations. A regional breakdown of that funding was not immediately available.
THANK YOU, CHINA
In Latin America, China's hands-on approach has been well received.
Chile, which has among the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in the region, has sought advice from Chinese health officials to guide its response and is sending an air force plane to China to pick up donated supplies, including tests and respiratory equipment, Chile's health minister said.
In Mexico, officials have said they are awaiting 300 ventilators from China, crucial yet scarce equipment in treating patients, while in Panama, government health officials heralded a video conference with Chinese experts to work on strategy, something China has done with more than 100 countries.
In Venezuela, the government of President Nicolas Maduro said China would send protective gear for health professionals and coronavirus test kits. The country has also opened talks with China over possible financial support.
"Thank you China for cooperation and solidarity with Ecuador!" the country's Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner wrote on Twitter, itemizing help from China that he said included 40,000 surgical masks, infrared thermometers, and protective suits.
In Brazil, right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has moved quickly to heal a diplomatic rift with China and Chinese officials have said Beijing would assist with medical supplies and technical assistance.
Chinese firms, including Alibaba <BABA.N>, Huawei, COFCO, China Communications Construction and the Bank of China have pledged donations around the region.
Back in Argentina, Washington is keen to show that it also wants to help.
"We plan this week to make funds available to Argentine authorities to combat coronavirus," an official at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires told Reuters, adding the country was "looking at the possibility of additional donations."
(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Aislinn Laing and Dave Sherwood in Santiago; Luc Cohen in Caracas; Jake Spring in Brasilia; Eli Moreno in Panama City, and Diego Oré Oviedo in Mexico City; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien)