Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina, and Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, at the Casa Rosada in Argentina
Since the decisive British victory in the Falklands War more than three decades ago, the Anglo-Argentine dispute over the Falkland Islands has faded into the margin of international affairs, if not into the historical archive. Few people today would imagine that the Falklands dispute, beyond helping President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner score some domestic political points, would recreate instability in Anglo-Argentine relations or in the South Atlantic. Yet, as surprising as it may sound, new developments surrounding the Falklands dispute not only have the potential to raise military tension in the South Atlantic, but also have global linkage effects in the South China Sea.
From Britain’s perspective, President Fernandez’s visit to China this February was very unsettling. Besides reaching up to fifteen new economic agreements with China to help its waning economy, Argentina also managed to secure China’s support on the matter of the Falklands dispute. For China, Argentina’s claim over the Falkland Islands is comparable to its own claims over a series of islands in the East and South China Seas. As a result of the visit, moreover, the two countries are going to step up their military cooperation. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, China has agreed to co-produce with Argentina Armored Personnel Carriers, ice-breakers, naval tug boats, and mobile hospitals. China will also tighten aero-space cooperation with Argentina in the future.
Directly challenging Britain’s sovereignty over the islands, however, is Argentina’s decision to purchase new warships and fighter jets from China to replenish its aging naval and air force fleet. Argentina has agreed to buy P 18 corvettes — the export version of China’s Type 056 corvette — to strengthen her naval power, with the first delivery expected to arrive in 2017. This class of corvette, though weighing less than 2,000 tons, has advanced anti-ship and anti-submarine capabilities. If Argentina were to move against the Falklands, the corvettes would be ideal for a naval blockade or for providing fire support to troops on the ground. As if these actions weren’t provocative enough, Argentina will designate the corvettes as the “Malvinas-class,” in reference to the Spanish name for the archipelago.
Argentina is also working actively with China for the transfer of fighter jets, most likely the FC-1/JF-17 or the J-10 multi-role aircraft. If armed with enough aircraft, the Argentine Air Force could pose a serious threat to any British fleet that dares to come to the Falklands’ rescue in times of crisis.
Of course, Britain is not going to sit idly as Argentina works assiduously to increase its military might. In the past, Britain has put pressure on other European countries to prevent them from selling military aircraft to Argentina, which could explain why Argentina has now turned to China for help. Although Britain cannot interrupt the Sino-Argentine arms deal, it is adding pressure on China by expressing its willingness to interfere in the islands dispute in the South China Sea. On January 30, for example, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond asserted that the British Armed Forces “are ready to take action in [the] Asia-Pacific” if British “interests and alliances in the region are put at risk by regional security challenges.” Hammond’s threat of military intervention in the South China Sea is made credible by the Five Power Defence Arrangements of 1971, which compel its signatories — Britain, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand — to consult one another and provide military aid to Malaysia and Singapore in case they are attacked. Accordingly, the Chinese press has interpreted Hammond’s statement as a warning to China against forming a close defense relationship with Argentina.
Nevertheless, Britain is still at a disadvantage in this re-emergent conflict surrounding the Falklands. The shrinking size and capabilities of the Royal Navy does not bode well for Britain’s position in the South Atlantic or the credibility of its threats to intervene in the South China Sea. Britain currently has no aircraft carrier available to sail to the Falklands, and the next-generation Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers won’t be commissioned until 2017. Similarly, the Royal Navy, which is regional in nature, will have a hard time maintaining a meaningful presence half way across the globe in either the South Atlantic or the South China Sea.
Granted, the prospect of another Falklands War is very remote, but Argentina can certainly — and likely intends to — use its new military capabilities to force British concessions at the negotiating table. Moreover, if Britain does not bolster its defense capabilities soon, the ghost of the Falklands will haunt British policy-makers the same way it did prior to the Falklands War in 1982. The defense of distant islands, after all, requires a strong naval force, which Britain has found quite hard to muster.