China and the World

Island diplomacy

China backs Argentina’s Falklands claim


Argentina has joined the BRI

Argentinian leader Alberto Fernandez wouldn’t have been counting on Olympic glory when he flew into Beijing earlier this month – his nation’s athletes have competed at 19 Winter Olympic Games without winning a single medal.

But President Fernandez had bigger fish to fry in his meeting on the sidelines of the Games with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart. The summit was headlined by Argentina’s enrolment as the 21st country from Latin America and the Caribbean for membership of the Belt and Road Initiative. Argentina is the largest Latin American economy to join to date, with Mexico and Brazil yet to make the same commitment.

“It is excellent news. Our country will obtain more than $23 billion from Chinese investments for works and projects,” Fernandez declared, with a list including $8 billion for a nuclear power plant outside Buenos Aires and another $1.1 billion for an upgrade to the city’s electricity grid.

Chinese gold mining firm Zijin also announced a $380 million deal for a lithium carbonate plant, perhaps in a nod to unease in Latin American economies that they are missing out on much of the profit in the EV battery metals supply chain (see WiC571 for how BYD, the Chinese carmaker, ran into problems on a lithium mining deal in Chile).

There was a different kind of powerplay in another section of the statement, where the Chinese expressed support for Argentina’s “full exercise of sovereignty” over the Falkland Islands, calling for new negotiations over the future of the islands in the remote waters of the South Atlantic.

On the face of it, Beijing’s support for Argentina’s claim seems to take the Chinese into the kind of debate they deplore from the nations that express opinions on their own sovereign affairs. Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary, was furious, shooting back immediately that the islands are “part of the British family” and demanding that China respect the Falklands’ sovereignty.

There has been an upswing in coverage of the Falklands in the Chinese media, however, with withering criticism of the “colonial” mentality of the British. Some of the disdain draws on longstanding resentment at British behaviour in China in the nineteenth century but there is also frustration over London’s more recent policies in the region. For instance, Chen Weihua, a journalist at China Daily, scoffed at the warnings from the British Foreign Office over the Falklands by asking: “But it’s okay for then UK to challenge China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea by sending navy vessels?”

Beijing probably sees parallels between Argentina’s geographical and historical claims in the South Atlantic with its own efforts to reclaim Taiwan (in the statement Fernandez made sure to back the One-China policy as well). In his column in The Spectator Charles Moore notes that Beijing “would happily argue that the Falklands equals Taiwan and should be returned to their rightful owners, even though there is probably not one single Falklander who wants to be ruled by Argentina”.

The row is further evidence of how far the Sino-UK relationship has frayed since the heady days of the so-called ‘Golden Era’, when the British hoped to secure a larger share of trade and investment flow with the Chinese, (former prime minister David Cameron even tried to bond personally with Xi over beer and football during a visit from the Chinese president; see WiC300).

Since then the mood has turned more fraught, including allegations from Beijing that British interference was contributing to the civil unrest that gripped Hong Kong for much of 2019. London’s offer of UK residency rights to more than three million Hongkongers after the introduction of a new national security law further alienated Beijing and there was more anger about the AUKUS submarine deal between the US, the UK and Australia last year, which was greeted with fury as unwarranted interference in the Indo-Pacific. Back in Britain, a growing group of members of parliament has been campaigning against unvetted investment from Chinese companies and there was even a warning from the British intelligence services against the activities of a supposed “agent” of the Chinese government within the British parliament.

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