By W. Alex Sanchez and Lauren Paverman
The British firm Rockhopper Exploration was the first company to obtain oil off the coast of the Falkland Islands in 2010. Since then, these oil deposits have raised the stakes of the historical territorial dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over these islands located in the South Atlantic Ocean. A recent report by the pro-military think tank, the United Kingdom National Defence Association (UKNDA), attempts to prove, albeit unconvincingly, that China could conceivably play a leading role in the future of this dispute. The documentstates that “by 2020 Falklands oil will most likely be coming on stream and Argentina, perhaps in concert with her new friend, the Peoples’ [sic] Republic of China, may well be looking with jealous eyes on this potential source of easy energy. Our assessment is that current force levels are inadequate to hold off even a small-size invasion.”
Authored by retired top British military officials, the report argues that the United Kingdom must increase defense spending by as much as 50 percent in order to offset potential security threats. UKNDA offers the same hackneyed conclusion as that of other organizations: that the West should prepare itself for a future armed conflict with China.
But what the report fails to take into account is that although China has vigorously developed its military capabilities over the past decade, resorting to the use of hard power in order to claim a greater degree of influence in the West would go against China’s traditionally non-aggressive foreign policy and undermine its strategic goals. That said, the threat of force alone often holds great weight in the international sphere, and China’s growing military and weapons industry, in addition to stronger trade relations, have brought Beijing closer to a number of Latin American nations. This shift will have considerable impact on the future of the U.S. role in the region.
Furthermore, Argentina and the Falkland Islands are located in what can arguably be called the U.S. sphere of influence, which means that Washington would be obligated to take a stance in this territorial dispute between Buenos Aires and London, should it escalate. According to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, extra-hemispheric powers (namely European powers looking to regain, or maintain, depending on the case, influence in Latin America and the Caribbean), must not have influence over or take actions to promote their interests in the Americas. The emergence of China as a counterweight to U.S. hegemony may call into question the relevance of this doctrine as well as Washington’s authority in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Certainly, Washington continues to have a strong economic and diplomatic influence, as well as an ongoing military presence in Latin America. It has also been criticized for carrying out a neo-Monroe Doctrine in modern times as an attempt to secure its own “empire” in the Western Hemisphere. But the doctrine has become largely irrelevant in the 21st century, as the United States has lost much of its diplomatic clout in Latin America over the past decade to a number of extra-hemispheric actors establishing ties to the region.
China’s Military Contributions to Latin America
Though the UKNDA is a pressure group that urges the United Kingdom to increase military spending), the organization’s statements about the possibility of Chinese military intervention warrants an exploration of the military activities Beijing has carried out in Latin America in recent years. China has sold defense equipment to a number of countries in the region: it has provided Venezuela with 10 JYL-1 radar systems and Ecuador with up to four different types of YLC air-search radars in 2009. Furthermore, China sent six K-8 planes, valued at $57.8 million, to the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in late June 2011, where President Evo Morales handed them over to the country’s Air Force in a military ceremony. Finally, in 2010, Beijing was preparing to sell MBT-2000 tanks to Peru, but the deal fell through due to budget issues. Nevertheless, although arms sales are growing, China’s role in the arms trade in Latin America is still dwarfed by other countries that provide military equipment to that region, like the United States and Russia.
Beijing’s presence in the arms industry of many Latin American countries has been followed by growth in military exchange programs, in which Latin American and Chinese officers travel overseas to receive military training. According to an article in the Asia Times, “defense and military education is becoming an increasingly important, albeit largely unnoticed, instrument of Chinese defense policy.” Although such programs have boosted cross-cultural interaction, R. Evan Ellis, an Assistant Professor of National Security Studies at the National Defense University, notes that “Latin American military officers participating in such programs are often jokingly stigmatized by their colleagues in ways that officers participating in exchange programs in the United States are not.”
In other words, due to the vast linguistic and cultural differences, Chinese military officers have not achieved strong personal connections with their Latin counterparts. Despite these differences, in the past few years over one hundred officers from twelve countries, including Argentina, have participated in these courses, further deepening the Sino-Latin American military relationship.
While Beijing has become more involved in many of Latin America’s militaries and arms industries, its explicit foreign policy precludes any overseas interventionist action. China’s lack of military aggression in the South China Sea dispute is a just one example of the country’s historically benign foreign policy (though there have certainly being exceptions to this rule). Endorsed by such historical leaders as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping, Beijing’s traditional foreign policy has avoided aggressive external engagement in an effort to maintain internal stability, which in turn allows for maximum domestic development. In a 2011 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of State noted that “Beijing is seeking to balance a more confident assertion of its growing interests in the international community with a desire to avoid generating opposition…from regional and major powers.”
In accordance with that analysis, political scientist George Friedman argues that “China is not historically aggressive and only intermittently has involved itself with the rest of the world”. Interventionist campaigns directly contradict such a stance and are both diplomatically and economically costly; the Chinese government, therefore, has avoided making rash military decisions. Instead of engaging in overseas conflicts like the Falkland Islands dispute, China’s primary security focus in the next decade will likely remain challenging Taiwan and countering U.S. influence in East Asia, particularly via its naval presence.
Beijing and Buenos Aires
Since establishing commercial ties with China in the 1950s, Buenos Aires has become Beijing’s fourth-largest trade partner in Latin America. After China adopted a market economy in 1978, these ties have only strengthened. A Channel News Asia article explains that “Argentina is the third largest supplier of agricultural products to China after the United States and Brazil, according to official statistics. In 2009, Argentine agricultural exports to China reached [USD] four billion.”
Although its business ventures and abounding wealth have placed it on the fast track for economic advancement, China is still considered a developing country like most nations in Latin America,. This commonality of interests affords both sides the opportunity to conduct mutually beneficial trade arrangements.
Equally as important, throughout history diplomatic relations between China and many countries in Latin America have been generally free of geopolitical conflicts and ideological contradictions. By contrast, tensions abound between China and the United States, for instance around U.S. arms deals with Taiwan, which China views as an action that undermines its authority over the island, and the recent arrangement between the United States and Australia that will station U.S. troops in the northern part of that country.
The Falkland Islands
Since the 1982 Falklands War, the United States has avoided picking sides in this territorial dispute. In June 2011, however, the Obama administration expressed support for a resolution drafted by the Organization of American States (OAS) advocating the reopening of dialogue between Britain and Argentina. Washington was not siding with Buenos Aires but, rather, showing support for bi-national negotiations. Despite this claim, conservative analysts on both sides of the Atlantic have perceived this stance to be an insult to London and its sovereignty over the islands. In a letter published in the conservative British daily The Telegraph, Admiral Sir John “Sandy” Woodward, who headed the Naval Task force during the Falklands War, argued that “we can no longer rely on the Pentagon to support us in helping the islanders in their wish to remain essentially British sovereign territory.”
Unsurprisingly, when dealing with protecting their country’s territory and national interests in the Western Hemisphere, British military officers largely ignore the Monroe Doctrine, even at the risk of armed conflict in the U.S. sphere of influence. Indeed, the doctrine has not stopped other extra-hemispheric actors from becoming involved in continental affairs. One recent example can be seen in the United Kingdom’s takeover of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) in 2009.
In the extremely unlikely case that China comes to the aid of Argentina over the Falkland Islands, this would constitute yet another dismissal of the doctrine. That the United States has not done more in defense of the sovereign rights of the TCI demonstrates Washington’s unwillingness to enforce a seemingly defunct policy. The Monroe Doctrine was originally established to deter European nations from further colonizing Western territories or establishing “puppet monarchs,” and such threats do not prevail in today’s world.
Losing Latin America?
The recent passing of the controversial free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia are evidence that the Washington is continuing to build strong commercial ties in Latin America. Additionally, the United States remains and will remain the continental military powerhouse, as it has much more than a symbolic military presence in the Western Hemisphere. Aside from the reestablishment of the Fourth Fleet, U.S. military presence is mostly exemplified by continuous military exercises and humanitarian operations such as PANAMAX, UNITAS, and New Horizons, as well as the bases it operates in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, and Cuba.
Though the United States is still the biggest provider of military equipment to the region, Latin America has continued to improve ties to China “to provide some balance to U.S. power,” according to Jorge I. Domínguez in a report written for the Inter-American Dialogue. For example, in a display of smart strategic diplomacy, Argentina has aligned itself with China’s stance on Taiwan. While Washington continues to focus its attention on areas like the Arab World and Asia, Beijing has been capitalizing on the impressive array of natural resources that Latin America has to offer. China’s growing involvement will give more Latin American countries the opportunity to diversify their export markets, thereby lessening the effects of the U.S. financial woes on their respective economies.
The aforementioned Asia Times article also states that “it remains to be seen how far Beijing will be willing to stretch its defense and military ties to further its economic interests, particularly its vital energy needs.” The discovery of offshore oil around the Falklands has most likely caught the attention of China in light of its constant quest for energy security. In a worst-case scenario, it is possible that, should tensions escalate between Buenos Aires and London over the Falklands once again, Beijing could view it as an opportunity to sell weapons to Argentina. As a precedent, a Chinese arms firm reportedly offered to sell weapons to the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as he fought NATO-backed rebel forces.
In any case, as the international balance of power continues to shift, it seems clear that Washington’s once seemingly omnipotent influence in the Western Hemisphere has diminished with the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) nations that have expanded their spheres of influence to other areas of the world.
At the same time, Latin America is in the middle of an arms race that has encouraged a diversification in its relations with outside suppliers. Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela have spent a significant amount of their budgets in the past decade to upgrade their militaries. For example, Brazil is currently building a nuclear-powered submarine, a goal of its navy since the last military government. Chile has acquired German Leopard tanks and F-16 planes, while Venezuela has purchased significant quantities of Russian weaponry like modern T-72 tanks and Sukhoi fighter jets.
The exception to this trend is Argentina, which makes a confrontation over the Falklands somewhat less likely. The Argentine military is finally recovering from the nation’s 2001-2002 economic meltdown, and in recent years Argentina’s armed forces have only carried out a limited number of military acquisitions. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the past five years, Argentina has only acquired a modest number of helicopters (mostly the American type Bell, Sea King and Huey, as well as two Mi-8 from Russia), aircraft radars from France and four light tanks from Austria. Meanwhile, the online defense news agency Infodefensa.com reports that Argentina is looking to develop locally manufactured unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in the coming years.
Beyond the Monroe Doctrine
As the Falklands dispute between the UK and Argentina continues, there have been occasional diplomatic incidents. For example, in October 2010, the British government planned to carry out military exercises in the Falklands. In response, Buenos Aires called the proposed drills an act of provocation, while the governments of Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay (all members of the South American MERCOSUR trade bloc) also complained about London’s plans. Meanwhile, in April 2011, President Cristina Kirchner, while attending a ceremony commemorating the beginning of the Falklands War, stated that she is against the “colonialism that still shames humanity in the 21st century,” a clear reference to British control of the islands. Then, this past September, the Argentine head of state gave a speech to the UN General Assembly in which she stated that if the status quo over the Falklands doesn’t change, she was prepared to suspend commercial flights from and to the Falklands (this historic agreement between London and Buenos Aires was reached in July 1999). She also accused London of refusing to dialogue by using its veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile the commercial involvement of other major powers like China surges in Latin America. Under these circumstances, regional and extra-hemispheric actors should consider the following initiatives to avoid an escalation of tensions that, in the worst-case scenario, could end in warfare.
Although the United Kingdom will not give up full control of the Falklands — particularly if the islanders themselves continue to assert their desire to remain British citizens — London should consider setting up a joint venture with Argentina such as off-shore oil exploration around the islands. Such a step would be particularly important as London tries to revamp its foreign policy toward developing areas of the world that it has largely ignored.
At the same time, Argentina will eventually have to accept that it will not regain control of the Falklands. The blockade that it currently has in place around the Falklands is a weak attempt on the part of Buenos Aires to exercise its authority in the disputed zone, and this action could only embitter relations with the islands further. Additionally, talk of a military campaign against the UK constitutes a toothless threat since the Argentine military remains generally weak, at least when compared to the UK’s armed forces, though such ultra-nationalistic rhetoric regarding regaining control of the islands is typical during election season.
When it comes to the United States, it is understandable that Washington wishes both to maintain its “special relationship” with the United Kingdom and continue to improve relations with Latin America. To avoid taking sides, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it very clear that Washington has no intention of determining the outcome of the dispute and that it would only continue to offer “moral support” to a resolution through bilateral talks. Balancing relations with the two nations can be a complicated issue when it comes to the Falklands dispute, but maintaining neutrality and pushing for the reopening of a bi-national dialogue has great potential to ensure that an agreement be reached that does not unnecessarily involve outside parties, whether it be China or the United States itself.
In the Western Hemisphere, Beijing has decided that it is more advantageous for the country to form cordial relationships rather than antagonistic ones. The Asian powerhouse should continue to be prudent in its overseas military involvement. As an export-dependent nation, China relies heavily on strong foreign markets for its goods, so fostering economic ties with key players in Latin America will continue to provide new opportunities for trade. Despite its achievements in global commerce, China is still an emerging economy and must maintain internal stability in order to foster domestic growth. Entering into a territorial dispute within the U.S. sphere of influence would be a costly decision for a country that has built a large part of its wealth on favorable trade relations with the U.S. market.
The Falklands dispute has served as a source of tension between the United States, United Kingdom, and Argentina for several decades. Although China has voiced its support for Argentina in its sovereign claim over the islands, entering into an armed conflict with Britain would contradict the country’s policy of non-intervention and lead to a severe upheaval within the global community. Despite the scare tactics used by lobbyists to boost military budgets, China is likely to follow the U.S. example and not get in between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
W. Alejandro Sánchez is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs where he focuses on international security and geopolitical issues. His personal blog can be found by clicking here. FPIF contributor Lauren Paverman is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.