In the shadow of the Winter Games, President Xi of China and President Fernández of Argentina have inked a joint statement supporting Argentine claims to the Falkland Islands. “We firmly support Argentina’s claim to full sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands,” it reads, using the Argentine name for the British Overseas Territory.
This might be mere game-playing. Yet it might also be a sign of looming danger.
The statement comes as Argentina this month becomes the largest Latin American economy to join Communist China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The country is expected to receive more than $23 billion in Chinese investments. If past precedent is anything to go on, the financing could ensnare Buenos Aires in Beijing’s sphere of influence for years, if not decades.
Sinking beneath the burden of $323 billion worth of public debt, Argentina, like other debtor nations, has become increasingly dependent on Chinese largesse and its promises of foreign direct investment and infrastructure development. Like other nations indebted to China, too, it risks making political concessions if it winds up unable to repay its dues.
Facing a similar predicament, Sri Lanka in 2017 offered Beijing its strategic port of Hambantota. Djibouti, in an effort to offset its debt to China, now hosts China’s only overseas military base. Wouldn’t the Falkland Islands make for a brilliant premium?
For Beijing, the Falklands could be a strategic outpost in the South Atlantic. China’s Maritime Silk Road envisions a global network of Chinese-managed ports and sea routes swirling with Chinese goods. For decades, it has been investing in ports and related services on Latin America’s pacific coast and in the Caribbean. It now seeks expanded access east of the Andes.
More critically, Communist China’s access to the Falkland Islands could ostensibly secure its access to two continents and two seas. Off the South American and West African coasts are extensive undersea oil and gas fields. The continent of Antarctica –– where the Antarctic Treaty prohibits resource exploration and development –– also remains untapped.
Curiously, Beijing has four research stations in the Antarctic with a fifth expected to be completed this year. Their activities remain largely unchecked.
Beijing’s enthusiasm for Argentina’s jurisdiction over the Falkland Islands is then likely more than a mere nod to the idea of “spheres of influence.” For his part, Mr. Fernández has pledged Argentina’s continued support of Mr. Xi’s “one China” policy, which claims Free China as its own. Communist China’s Falklands focus is wildly strategic, which makes it wildly significant.
It also comes as Russia again threatens increased military engagement in Latin America, and as Moscow and Beijing work ever-more closely in concert.
In January, the Kremlin’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned that Russia could not rule out deploying military forces to Venezuela and Cuba should tensions over Ukraine escalate. While the credibility of the assertion is dubious, it does underscore Russia’s continued capabilities and interests in the region. It would also not be the first time that Moscow has used military threats in Latin America when challenged in its own near-abroad.
British opposition to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea saw the deployment of additional British military forces to the Falklands amid concerns of a Russian-backed attack. The Kremlin likens Argentina’s supposed rights to the Falklands to its own claims over Ukraine.
For Beijing and Moscow, the Falklands dispute is also a vestige of the Western-led global order that they so eagerly seek to usurp. Beijing has previously chastised Britain’s “colonial mindset” when it comes to the Falklands. Moscow continues to lament a “double standard.”
In a joint statement issued by Presidents Xi and Putin as the Winter Olympics opened in Beijing, the two sides zeroed in on what they see as a “trend towards redistribution of power in the world.” The document speaks of an “international relations of a new type,” and “a new kind of relationships between world powers.”
Surely dissolving Western relations and alliances counts among this “redistribution?
In 1982, one of Argentina’s key blunders was its failure to win significant diplomatic support. Prime Minister Thatcher moved swiftly to secure a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the invasion. With Prime Minister Johnson stretched at home and abroad, would he be in a position to do the same? Would such a resolution pass, or would China and Russia veto, touting British sovereignty of the islands as, however inaccurately, “colonialism” and calling for a new world order?
Dangerous games, indeed.