China and Uruguay established diplomatic relations in 1988 and have witnessed great progress in their bilateral ties over the past three decades. The two countries are highly complementary in various fields and have great potential for cooperation.

Recent Uruguayan Ambassador to China Fernando Lugris (Lugris) interview on a range of topics including China’s Efforts & International Cooperation in combating the coronavirus, bilateral relations and the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

Q. What are your thoughts on the Chinese Government and Society’s effort in combating the epidemic?

Ambassador Lugris: Chinese government and society’s effort in coping with COVID-19 are resolute and frankly deserving of admiration. I have been able to witness the enormous sacrifices undergone by everyone here in Beijing and the rest of the country. We have all adjusted our lifestyles in order to contain the spread of the virus, and have done so in a completely self-effacing way.

I have been most impressed by the sense of community that this fight has inspired. The Chinese people as a whole have come together in this struggle. The extent to which solidarity and empathy have been boosted these days is something I had never seen before. We could all learn from how the citizenry of this great nation is conducting itself.

Q. Has there been any information about the epidemic shared between related Chinese departments and the Uruguayan Embassy in China? If yes, which department provides the information and how do you receive it? How do you evaluate the process?

Ambassador Lugris: We have received outstanding information from the related Chinese departments. We are being briefed on a daily basis. The information comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China and the Foreign Affairs Office of Beijing Municipal People’s Government, among others.

Q. In the past decade, China has become the top importer of goods from Uruguay. How has COVID-19 affected trade and tourism between China and Uruguay? What has Uruguay done or planned to do to minimise the adverse effects of the outbreak?

Ambassador Lugris: We believe it is still early to thoroughly assess how COVID-19 outbreak might have affected trade and tourism between Uruguay and China. Nevertheless, we foresee that, whatever the extent of the impact, China will continue being our country’s top importer.

In order to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on our economic and tourism cooperation and our relations in general, Uruguay has abide by the World Health Organisation (WHO) advice, which does not support the adoption of measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade.

Therefore, Uruguay has not prevented the entry of Chinese citizens or of people who have recently been to China

On March 1, Uruguay will have a new President, Luis Lacalle Pou, taking office. Chinese Ambassador to Uruguay Wang Gang was the first foreign ambassador to meet Pou after the latter was elected President on November 24, 2019. In the course of their conversation, Pou and Wang clearly agreed on their willingness to deepen the integration of our two economies.

Q. What are your thoughts on the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative?

Ambassador Lugris: The BRI is a wonderful initiative that provides a roadmap for worldwide cooperation. It is an ideal platform for the countries which espouse it to combine their unique advantages to deliver tangible benefits for their citizens. Economic and cultural exchanges will certainly be expanded to a great extent as a result of effective implementation of the BRI.

Now, Uruguay and China are working on a detailed action plan for the implementation of this agreement, which will include several projects in different areas to be carried out in the near future.

As a result of its unrivalled political, social and economic stability as well as privileged geographical location and preferential investment regimes, Uruguay hopes to become a logistic and financial hub for the initiative in its extension to South America.

Q. Media say that Luis Lacalle Pou, who won presidential elections in November 2019, aims for a MERCOSUR (a South American trade and political bloc initially established by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and subsequently joined by Venezuela and Bolivia – the latter still complying with the accession procedure) that is less political, more modern, flexible and open to the world. Do you think the new president will help facilitate an FTA between China and Uruguay? If yes, when would be a possible time for the two countries to establish an FTA?

Ambassador Lugris: A more flexible approach to MERCOSUR is a tenet held by successive Uruguayan governments and also Pou. The possibility of an FTA between Uruguay and China is cherished by different political parties in the country, including Pou’s. My country has long been interested in an FTA with China.

In this regard, Uruguay is also flexible and espouses both alternatives: either a bilateral FTA or one negotiated by the MERCOSUR as a bloc.

Recently, MERCOSUR has followed a more ambitious agenda in terms of negotiations of preferential trade agreements with its trading partners, a trend which, if sustained, favour the prospects of a feasibility study for a MERCOSUR-China FTA.

An open MERCOSUR that negotiates meaningful trade agreements with the most important players in the world and the establishment of a free trade association with our first partner (China) are clear demands of the private sector in Uruguay and also constitute clear points of a state´s foreign policy.

Q. What role can Uruguay play to enhance China-South America cooperation in the South American Region?

Lugris: Uruguay has historically been seen by its neighbours as a trustworthy articulator of regional cooperation. For that reason, the country is home to the headquarters of both MERCOSUR and the Latin American Integration Association (ALAIA). Uruguay’s role as liaison could also serve as a smoother of South America-China cooperation.

In the second semester of 2020, my country will hold the Presidency of MERCOSUR, during which we will try to deepen our exchanges with China, as we did last time.

We had that responsibility in 2018 and convened the most recent meeting of the MERCOSUR-China Dialogue in Montevideo. We are confident that a new round of this mechanism may be called upon in 2020.

As the only MERCOSUR country that has already signed the BRI framework agreement with China and that its Parliament has already approved the accession to the AIIB, Uruguay wants to position itself as a gateway for Chinese companies that want to invest and do more businesses with the region.