Argentina Increases its Presence in Antarctica, With China Willing to Help
Thursday, August 5, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Antarctica has always been an extremely disputed territory, claimed and occupied by several states. Since 1961, a treaty establishes the Antarctic continent as an international zone, unavailable to claims of sovereignty by any country. Currently, the only way to establish a base on this continent is for scientific purposes, and no form of military occupation or economic exploration is allowed.
However, this treaty will expire in a few decades and then territorial conflicts will return, which is likely to be one of the most important geopolitical issues. To justify their participation in a possible future partition of the continent, some states with geographical proximity to Antarctica have tried to strengthen their presence in the region – this is precisely the case of Argentina and the UK (Falkland Islands), historically rival nations with tensions that seem to intensify more and more.
The Argentine government recently announced that it plans to build an Antarctic Logistics Hub in Tierra del Fuego – the southernmost province of the American continent. The objective is simple: to expand the official Argentine presence on the South Pole. The Tierra del Fuego region is extremely strategic for establishing transport, communication, and research centers, as it has direct access to the immense “Argentine Antarctic Zone” (the part of the continent claimed by Buenos Aires, which a vast territory of 1.4 million square kilometers, corresponding to about 10 % of entire Antarctica). Argentina has had bases in this province since 1904, and as global interest in the “white continent” gradually rises, Buenos Aires strengthens efforts to ensure its participation in the exploration of the pole.
According to official statements from the provincial government, the construction of this logistics center is the first step in a wide-ranging infrastructure project, with plans to build new ports, airports, roads, and scientific and technological bases. In addition to expanding Argentina’s presence to Antarctica, there is an interest in integrating the country’s most isolated regions with the great metropolises, facilitating the transit of people and goods through a solid base of maritime, land and air transport.
However, Argentina’s plans tend to collide with the UK’s Antarctic project. The British government has a historical interest in the continent and has always sought to expand its presence in the surrounding areas, mainly through the Falkland Islands. The proximity of these islands to the South Pole is one of the great strategic factors in the region and one of the main reasons why Argentina and the UK have gone to extremes in their disputes. Currently, the British are planning to build a big port terminal in Port Stanley, which is also expected to function as a logistical hub for activities on the Antarctic continent. The project is valued at over 85 million dollars and is expected to be completed by 2024. The company responsible for the construction of the port will be BAM Nuttall, which is part of the Royal BAM Group.
There costs of the Argentine project will also be high, valued at more than 300 million dollars. Currently, the Argentine economy is not in a good phase. The country is slowly recovering from a severe economic crisis and there are low limits on state spending, which is why the project will be operated through public-private partnerships and international cooperation.
China have already shown interest in helping with spending in order to expand its international projection towards the South Pole. Beijing currently has four scientific bases in Antarctica and is building the fifth one. Chinese participation in the Argentine plan, although there is little information so far, seems obvious, especially considering that both countries have exponentially improved their bilateral cooperation in recent months, with Buenos Aires becoming one of the largest suppliers of agricultural products to China.
Washington, which also has a strong interest in the pole, does not seem pleased with the possible Chinese incursion into the region and has expressed discontent on several occasions. In April, when the construction of the logistics hub was only a possibility, an American military committee, led by US Admiral Greg Faller, head of the Southern Command, visited Buenos Aires. Faller asked the Argentine government to visit the zone where the center would be built, which was denied. Since then, bilateral relations between Argentina and the US have become tenser and the US armed forces have expressed concern about the project. The US will also need to cooperate with the UK to ensure its presence in the region.
So, we have a situation that looks like it may transform the South Atlantic into a new conflict zone. Antarctica is the largest freshwater reserve in the world, also containing abundant oil, gold, diamonds, and natural gas. In 2041 (when the treaty expires), these resources will be available for exploration and countries that are present in the region will have a big advantage in the polar race.
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