Next month an Argentine military delegation will be traveling to China as part of a bilateral defense cooperation understanding, which among other issues includes the potential purchase of twelve Chinese fighter aircraft for which the Argentine latest national budget has earmarked a 664 million dollars credit.
The information was revealed by Argentine and Indian defense sources, (India keeps close track of China and its ally Pakistan strategic and military steps), and follows on the very dynamic activities of the Argentine ambassador in Beijing, Vaca Narvaja who not only was decisive in structuring the recent MoU between the two countries, signed during the visit of president Alberto Fernandez to Beijing but also has been in contact with the Chinese military establishment and the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation, CATIC.
The meeting of Vaca Narvaja with CATIC officials, a few months ago, was described as part of the comprehensive strategy for defense cooperation and refers to Beijing's interest in providing the weakened Argentine air force with the JF-17 fighter jet Thunder, designed, developed by China and battle-proven by the Pakistan air force. This was followed by reciprocity visits of Chinese defense officials to Argentina.
Ambassador Vaca Narvaja described the defense cooperation as a milestone, not only because of the implications for the armed forces but also because his political mentor, the powerful vice-president Cristina Kirchner is an admirer of China's development and is convinced that Beijing in a few years will become the world's leading superpower.
On the other hand, the fact is that for decades the Dassault Mirage interceptors, with outstanding performance in the Falklands war were the backbone of Argentina's air force, but they were finally decommissioned in 2015. Since then Argentina has been trying to rebuild its air force and has tried to acquire advanced combat jets.
However lack of funds, given the precarious budget situation of the country, but mainly because of the arms embargo imposed by the UK, following the 1982 war, has impeded access to Western options. British technology is prevalent in pilots' ejection seats and air to air refueling systems in most Western-made aircraft.
Vaca Narvaja also pointed out defense cooperation with China is not new. It started when the current Minister of Defense Jorge Taiana was serving as Foreign Minister and the
latest moves mark a “continuity in the relationship with China” initiated by the then Cristina Kirchner's government in 2015.
Argentine president Alberto Fernández arrived in Beijing on February 4 on an official visit to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries, to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics, plus to reinforce political, economic, and trade ties.
China is interested in providing Argentina with the modern JF-17 since it might open the door for future arms deals with other countries in the region. Argentina had previously agreed with China to purchase a range of military systems in 2015. The contract, for an estimated one billion dollars, comprised warships, armored vehicles, and fighter jets. Argentina’s Defense Minister at the time, Agustin Rossi, confirmed in that same year that the JF-17 would be on the shopping list.
These deals were struck during Cristina Kirchner's administrations (2008–2015), only to be canceled by the conservative Mauricio Macri government after it came to power in December 2015. The weapons deals have since been revived by the current Peronist government in 2019, in which Kirchner is serving as the Vice President.
Argentina’s financial problems have long been a barrier to China exporting defense equipment to the country. Vaca Narvaja has also met with Jiao Kaihe, president of China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO), a Chinese state company with which Buenos Aires is working on a project that includes the potential acquisition of 88 armored vehicles as well as the establishment of a manufacturing unit in Argentina.
The Argentine government wants NORINCO to share technologies and develop a dual-use vehicle manufacturing unit with them. Negotiations are still underway. Vaca Narvaja argued that collaboration with China should include “productive links for the Argentine military system” as a core principle.
The latest news is that the Argentine budget included authorization for the Defense ministry arms purchasing department to seek a 664 million dollars credit for the purchase of military aircraft. However, allegedly Argentina considered the US$ 50 million per JF-17 Thunder aircraft price too high and asked Beijing for reconsideration. Negotiations are ongoing, but with potential competitors such as Russia, the US with F18 Hornets, and India with its Teja fighter, designed to rival the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17.