Word that Uruguay was seeking a trade deal with China prompted jubilation at El Álamo ranch, a lush grassland dotted with cactus and herds of cattle on Uruguay’s eastern plains.

Most of the cattle are destined for buyers in China, where they face tariffs of 12 percent – more than double the tax applied to meat from Australia, the biggest exporter of beef to China. Farmers in New Zealand, the second largest exporter, enjoy duty-free access to China.

“Bring the business deal,” said Jasja Kotterman, who runs the family farm. “That would level the playing field for us.”

But the enthusiasm spreading in this South American country has more recently given way to resignation that a trade deal with China is unlikely to happen soon. What marked a fresh opportunity for Uruguay turned into a cautionary tale about the difficulties of trade policy for small nations struggling with complex geopolitical realignments.

Uruguay’s president, Luis Lacalle Pou, used his economic legacy to reach a trade deal with China. “We have every intention of delivering it,” he said last July when he announced the start of formal negotiations. China was willing to talk about a bilateral agreement with Uruguay.

But Uruguay’s aspirations sparked anger and recrimination in neighboring Brazil and Argentina, as well as what was seen as economic retaliation. Together with Uruguay and Paraguay, they belong to Mercosur, an alliance forged more than three decades ago to promote regional trade.

Brazil has in recent months pushed Uruguay to the brink as it sought a broader trade deal with China on behalf of the bloc.

“We want to sit down as Mercosur and discuss with our Chinese friends the Mercosur-China agreement,” said the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, during a meeting. January visit to Uruguay capital, Montevideo.

In April, Mr. Lula traveled to China, where he received red carpet treatment, including a visit with the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

“Nobody will stop Brazil from improving its relationship with China,” Mr. Lula said.

Whatever interest the Chinese government had in dealing with Uruguay soon gave way to its focus on Brazil, a calculation based on basic arithmetic: Uruguay is a country of 3.4 million people, while Brazil is South America’s largest economy and home of 214 million.

However, despite the Brazilian president’s stated interest in a trade deal, prospects for an agreement between Mercosur and China appeared somewhere between minimal and non-existent.

A notoriously slow organization full of internal discord, Mercosur has spent more than 20 years trying to conclude negotiations on a trade deal with the European Union. And one of its members, Paraguay, has no relationship with Beijing, instead maintaining relations with Taiwan. That alone made the possibility of an agreement between Mercosur and China almost unthinkable.

All of this raised the likelihood that Uruguay could end up damaging its deals with its neighbors, achieving no economic gains.

“Uruguay is being used as a piece of leverage for China to negotiate with Brazil,” said Ms. Kotterman, the El Álamo ranch supervisor, as a full moon cast a silver glow over the grass.

Uruguay’s reach for a trade deal with China was about more than the final destination for its cows. Its government sought to redraw the terms of engagement with the rest of the globe, separating the nation from the legacy of commercial protectionism that prevailed in the largest economies of South America.

It explicitly regarded China as a counterweight to the dominance of the United States in the hemisphere.

Unions have opposed the prospect of a deal as a threat to higher-paying factory jobs, while politicians – some within the ruling coalition – have condemned the president’s alignment with China as a national security risk.

But the biggest source of concern centered on the consequences of a possible break within Mercosur, which was formed in 1991.

Mercosur acts as a collective to set tariffs with the rest of the world. In seeking its own agreement with China, Uruguay broke the solidarity of the group. It would open its markets to Chinese-made manufactured goods in exchange for lower tariffs on beef exported to China. Additional sales for ranches in Uruguay would come at the expense of beef producers in Brazil and Argentina.

Mercosur is widely seen as falling short of its goals of catalyzing a common market in South America. Its purported designs on growing trade were often thwarted by the interests of politically powerful industries in Brazil and Argentina. The two nations managed to obtain dozens of exemptions that spared their companies from competing with others in the bloc.

However, many regional leaders place a stake in cooperation as the key to achieving prosperity and freeing the continent from its huge dependence on mining raw materials and growing commodities such as soy.

Mercosur’s champions say the alliance is the only way for its members to build common energy markets, international highways and other infrastructure needed to advance manufacturing.

Mercosur also presented itself as an alternative to dependence on the United States.

“Mercosur is important, and it should be more important,” said Martin Guzmán, Argentina’s former economy minister. “I do not see a way out of the problem of stagnation of the continent if it is not through deeper integration.”

He criticized Uruguay’s pursuit of a trade deal with China as a threat to the bloc.

“If everyone behaves like this,” he said, “there is a long-term cost.”

Uruguay’s exporters preferred to focus on the potential benefits – a bigger gap when selling to China, home to 1.4 billion people.

Facundo Marquez focused on the prospect of extra sales for his company, Polanco Caviar, which breeds sturgeon in cages in the Black River in central Uruguay. Rising incomes in China have given rise to a growing appetite for caviar, but Chinese producers have been almost completely protected from foreign competition.

No industry had more to gain than beef.

Uruguay exports about 80 percent of its beef, netting about $3 billion a year, according to the National Meat Institute, a government agency in Montevideo. But the nation’s beef producers face tariffs of 26 percent in the United States and more than 45 percent in the European Union, after running out of small quotas.

That makes China the obvious focus, while fueling bitter talk that Washington has refused to negotiate a trade deal to open up the United States to Uruguay’s beef exports.

“The United States talks a lot about how it values ​​Uruguay’s democracy and human rights, but at the end of the day they turn their backs on us,” said Conrado Ferber, president of the National Meat Institute. “That’s the reason we do business with China.”

Jorge González, who runs a slaughterhouse in the modest town of Lavalleja, is particularly fond of Chinese buyers because they buy the whole cow. European buyers are usually interested in only the main parts, which make up less than half of the cow. Americans are buying a bit more, turning less valuable cuts into hamburger meat. But in China, a diverse array of culinary offerings, such as hot pot, is generating demand for even thinly sliced ​​portions of less valuable meat.

Mr. González, 56, buys cattle from surrounding ranches and sends them down an assembly line where workers carve the animals into meat and put the cuts into boxes. He exports most of his production around the globe by container ship. Seventy percent go to China.

His plant has enough capacity to slaughter about 100,000 animals a year, about twice as many as he handles now. A trade deal with China would encourage local farmers to produce more, he said.

Mr. González hopes that some kind of agreement with China can still be reached because of Uruguay’s virtues as a food producer. The country has vast open spaces and almost four times more cows than people, making it a useful place to produce meat for export.

“The Chinese are looking for a guaranteed supply of food,” Mr González said.

The El Álamo ranch is one of Mr. González’s suppliers. There, Ms. Kotterman and her family are betting on another aspect of the Chinese market: a growing appetite for high-quality beef.

Over the past five years, her ranch has made a significant investment in producing a growing herd of Wagyu – cows originally bred in Japan that are renowned for their extraordinary marbling and tenderness. El Álamo paid Mr. González to slaughter its Wagyu, selling the meat directly to buyers in China.

There are worse places to be a cow than the rolling hills of the 14,000-acre ranch. Gauchos set out at dawn on royal horses, driving cows to green pastures flanked by shady groves of eucalyptus. On a recent morning, as a pale sun worked to penetrate the fog, a veterinarian checked which of the cows were pregnant.

Ms. Kotterman’s father, Raymond De Smedt, fears that politics in South America is conspiring to sabotage the economy.

In his telling, China is the future. Mercosur is the past.

“It’s a dead duck,” he said, referring to the alliance. “We would be better off without Mercosur, and everyone just doing what they want.”

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