By Dov S. Zakheim (*)This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War. Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory, on April 2, 1982.
The Argentines overwhelmed the small British military contingent on Port Stanley, the Islands’ capital, and took the town without inflicting any casualties. The next day, Argentine marines seized South Georgia Island, a British Overseas Territory about 1,120 miles from the Falklands. By the end of April there were more than 10,000 Argentine troops on the Islands.
The challenge for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government seemed overwhelming, given the more than 8,000-mile distance between Britain and the Islands. In fact, the British outpost in the South Atlantic that was closest to the Falklands, Ascension Island, was just under 4,000 miles away. Nevertheless, backed by the president Ronald Reagan administration’s strong and timely political, materiel and intelligence support, and despite some naval losses, Britain was able to retake the Islands in a matter of just over two months.
Argentina has never come to terms with British control of the Islands, which dates to 1833 (they became a Crown Colony eight years later). There was an Argentine settlement on the Islands at the time, and ever since Buenos Aires has claimed the Malvinas, as it calls them, as its own sovereign territory. Despite its decisive defeat in the Falklands War, and despite the overwhelming preference of the Islanders to remain British citizens, Argentina has never relinquished that claim. It has demanded that Britain agree to negotiate the Islands’ future. London has steadfastly refused to do so.
Enter China. Last week, Argentina joined China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative. The agreement that Argentine President Alberto Fernandez and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, signed on Feb. 7 calls for US$ 23 billion worth of Chinese investments for what Fernandez termed “works and projects.” Chinese official reporting has stressed not only the importance of trade and investment between the two countries, but also has noted the importance of “regional connectivity,” which no doubt signifies an open door for Huawei’s 5G network. The agreement represents a giant Chinese foothold in Latin America.
In their joint statement outlining the specifics of what is essentially an economic agreement, however, the two sides also backed each other’s territorial claims. Argentina reiterated its support for the One China policy that is the cornerstone of Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. For its part, China voiced its support for the Argentine claim to what the statement called “the Malvinas.”
In response to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss' tweet that Britain “completely reject[s] any questions over sovereignty of the Falklands,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated Beijing’s position in no uncertain terms: “China firmly supports Argentina’s legitimate claim of sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands,” he stated, underscoring Argentina’s demand that London should negotiate with Buenos Aires to resolve what he termed a “territorial dispute.” China’s London Embassy weighed in as well, stating that it “hope[s] the UK will respond positively to Argentina’s request, start negotiations at an early date and find a peaceful, just and lasting solution.”
Britain and China have been at loggerheads over a number of issues, most recently London’s support for the European Union’s complaint in the World Trade Organization that accuses Beijing of discriminatory trade practices against Lithuania in retaliation for the Baltic state’s opening a Taiwan Representative Office in Vilnius. Chinese support for Argentina’s determination to retake the Falklands — if not by military force, then by international political pressure — indicates the ways in which Beijing seeks both to retaliate against those it perceives to oppose its position on Taiwan and to marshal the widest possible support for its overweening political, military and economic ambitions.
Washington is preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine, as well it should be. But Britain remains one of America’s closest allies, if not its closest. The Reagan administration was right to support Britain in the face of an illegal invasion. The Biden administration, which is seeking to forestall another illegal invasion, this time by Russia, should also make it clear, to both Buenos Aires and to Beijing, that it remains firmly committed to the position the United States took four decades ago — namely, that the Falklands should remain under British control.
That is a posture that reflects the virtually unanimous wishes of the Falkland Islanders themselves (2013 referendum), and it is their views that should be paramount with regard to the future of the Islands on which they reside.
(*) Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.