China’s Strategic Military Advance in Argentina

posted by R. Evan Ellis on November 16, 2021 - 12:00am

The military component of international engagement by the People’s Republic of China has long proceeded cautiously, in support of the economic engagement led by PRC-based SOEs. Some have anticipated the imminent establishment of a base by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Panama since the Chinese firm Hutchison Whampoa won concessions to operate two ports there in 1999, or in El Salvador, since the announcement of Chinese plans for a megaproject at La Union.

In the context of China’s dependence on established powers such as the US and the European Union for the access to markets and technology vital to its rise, the PRC has generally avoided the provocative step of establishing formal military alliances and bases, particularly in parts of the world such as the Western Hemisphere where the US is particularly sensitive to China’s presence, and where the PLA does not yet have the power projection capability to effectively defend such bases. Nonetheless, in its 2015 and 2019 Chinese Defense Strategy White Papers, the PLA explicitly acknowledges the importance of global military engagement in support of China’s growing commercial presence across the world. The conduct of counterpiracy operations by the PLA Navy off the coast of Africa since 2009, and the 2017 establishment of a military base in Djibouti, strategically positioned in proximity to the Suez Canal, highlights the Chinese military’s tendency to expand its overseas military and other strategic presence as its needs for, and capabilities to defend it grow. The PRC establishment of a space communication facility in Neuquén, Argentina, opened in 2017 and operated by military personnel, in support of communication with its beyond-earth space activities, further illustrates that the PRC will cautiously construct military facilities on foreign soil when strategic needs dictate.

China’s current interest in building and possibly operating an Antarctic “logistics base” in Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina, raises concerns because it is strongly consistent with the logic and pattern of the PLA’s advance in expanding its global strategic reach. The $300 million, multi-phase project could, in principle, be financed by China, although as noted by then head of US Southern Command ADML Craig Faller when visiting the area, the question was not only who finances it, but who operates it.

In commercial terms, China’s deepwater fishing fleet maintains a regular presence in the proximate waters of the South Atlantic near, and sometimes inside Argentina’s Exclusive Economic Zone. With respect to petroleum and minerals, although China has technically been a signatory since 1983 to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty banning territorial claims and associated commercial exploitation of the continent, the treaty becomes modifiable in 2048. Indeed, in October 2021, at the G20 meeting in Rome, Argentina and China’s Foreign Ministers signed an agreement on cooperation in exploitation of the Antarctic region and its surrounding oceans.

In military terms, the PRC has shown increasing interest in Antarctica in recent years. The PRC has had a presence in Antarctica since 1984, presently maintaining four research bases there, including one in the area corresponding to Argentina’s historic claim. In 2013, a Chinese naval task force including two PLA Navy Missile Frigates traveled to the region, including conducting military exercises with Chile, before passing through the difficult waters of the Straits of Magellan, then conducting port calls in both Argentina and Brazil. The PLA Navy icebreaker Xue Long II made its first trip to Antarctica in November 2019. The PLA Navy has also been in talks with Chile for access to Punta Arenas to support the resupply of its Arctic bases from there.

Construction and operation of a polar logistics base in Ushuaia fits the PLA Navy pattern for expanding its global presence in multiple ways. First, such a base would support PRC access in an area that the PRC wants to be in. As with China’s base in Djibouti, establishing an ostensibly commercial facility at the southern tip of Argentina would give the PLA both plausible deniability and some distance from the United States, in an area where China already has a significant commercial and strategic presence, as noted previously.

For the time being, Argentina’s government has attempted to provide reassurances that it is not moving forward with a Chinese controlled base in Ushuaia, yet the strategic implications of such a presence should not be taken lightly. From a strategic standpoint, the prospect of PRC control of the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Straights of Magellan or the Drake Passage in time of conflict would be significant, particularly if the PRC were able to shut down the Panama Canal in the context of a war such as that potentially unleashed by a PRC attempt to forcibly incorporate Taiwan into China.

From a British standpoint, such a PRC presence would add to the threat posed by Argentina to Falkland/Malvinas islands, already heightened by Argentina’s programmed acquisition of Chinese FC-1 combat aircraft.

The apparent pause in Argentina’s incorporation of China into the planned base in Ushuaia does not represent the end to the strategic threat, so long as PLA Naval power projection capabilities continue to grow, and while the government in Buenos Aires continues to be increasingly tied to the PRC in commercial, financial and political terms. The area sometimes known as the “end of the world” may be far in distance from Washington, but far closer in terms of the impact on the US and the region of decisions taken there regarding China and the PLA.