The Falkland Islands: How much has the game changed?

Daniel Crump 

Image © Tiger 2000

It was announced this week that the residents of the Falkland Islands will hold a referendum on their political status in 2013. The main focus of which will be their links with the United Kingdom, with 1,600 registered voters on the Islands deciding whether to remain under British rule or back Christina Fernandez’s view that ‘Las Malvinas’ should be a part of Argentina.

Views are mixed as to the seriousness of the escalated tension between the British and Argentine governments over the last few months. Some see the situation as harmless sabre rattling which should have been anticipated given that 2012 is the 30th anniversary of the 1982 War. Others are choosing to read more into the rhetorical exchanges between David Cameron and Mrs. Fernandez. Governments are rarely prepared to answer too many questions on their willingness to enter into global conflict through fear of provoking unnecessary alarm, but what can we divulge from the rhetoric so far, and what are the main areas of concern?

A different kind of Cold War?

Whilst categorically denying that their own country is willing to enter into a new conflict, both governments are doing their best to show that the other one might be. Britain is accusing Christina Fernandez of pandering to the staunch nationalists in Argentina and using bullish language, on the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, to increase her approval ratings. For its part, Argentina has accused Britain of stepping up its military presence on the Islands and viewed Prince William’s recent visit as an obvious sign of disrespect.

Underlying all of this, the Falklands dispute has always involved, to a certain extent, concerns over natural resources, particularly oil. According to Argentine observers, the Falklands are an important strategic asset for the UK and give them an important route into Antarctica, which is seen as a potentially crucial area for future oil extraction. Many Argentines also recognise the cost of allowing the British to seize important natural resources so close to their own shores. Indeed, a significant part of the Military Junta’s reasoning 30 years ago was the possibility of improving their economic situation at home, and turning public opinion in their favour as a result.

The Dangerous Mrs. Fernandez?

Christina Fernandez is not leading a military junta. As a democratically elected figure, she is accountable to the people of Argentina and has historically shown her support for international law. There is also an unwritten rule in International Relations theory that democracies have much more to lose from war, and are therefore less likely to instigate a conflict than dictatorships, say. 

However, recent activity suggests that the President has tapped into a real sense of Argentine nationalism and has provoked criticism from financial institutions and fellow world leaders by her actions. Firstly, she has put aside concerns over the size of Argentina’s debt, and decided to raid state coffers to pay for increased public spending. Secondly, earlier this year she took the decision to nationalist 51% of YPF, thus scuppering a deal between Spanish oil firm Repsol, the previous owners of the YPF shares, and the Chinese. Instead, Fernandez has sold 8% of YPF to Carlos Slim, a Mexican telecommunications mogul.

This is certainly one area of concern the British government would do well to take seriously. The response to increased State intervention in Argentine politics has been insignificant so far, and there is really no way to measure the extent to which public support is capable of pushing an increasingly popular President like Christina Fernandez towards the unthinkable.

It’s now fairly clear that she wants to re open the debate about Britain’s claim to the Islands she insists on calling Las Malvinas. In an emotionally charged speech to the UN’s Decolonisation Committee, she called on Britain to enter into dialogue and to stop abusing its power as a member of the UN Security Council. She also accused Britain of acting as a ‘bully’ and urged David Cameron to act with more intelligence and compassion. Fernandez did not help her cause by refusing an offer for negotiations from the Falkland government, but still has the ability to portray Britain as the stubborn roadblock to peaceful talks.

By refusing to offer any indication that her country wants to enter into another conflict, Fernandez appears to be playing a rather shrewd game. In terms of International Politics, calling for dialogue can win you friends, and is more likely to provoke sympathy than Britain’s current stance of ruling out negotiations altogether.

The other slight advantage facing Argentina is the overall political situation in South America, which is unrecognisable from the 1980’s. Thanks in some part to US aid and support, the continent has seen an increase in Foreign Direct Investment, particularly in the North. South American economic growth hit 5.9% in the midst of the economic crisis in 2010. Some countries, including Colombia, have seen growth four times that of the European Union in recent years. The continent is also home to Brazil, one of the members of the so called BRIC economies, who have recently stepped up their trading links with China.

This has gone some way to producing economic and political integration throughout the continent. Political matters, like the Colombian and Venezuelan conflict, are now increasingly dealt with by UNASUR rather than the OAS. Also, the ‘Bank of the South’, a Hugo Chavez inspired project now offers South American nations alternative borrowing options to the IMF.

The last OAS summit in Colombia this year was arguably the most divisive event the American region has witnessed in recent times. Argentina and Brazil felt willing to oppose the USA on matters from Cuba’s involvement in future summit proceedings to the legalisation of the drugs trade. Christina Fernandez also used this summit to bring up the Falklands debate and called for negotiations to take place between the OAS and Britain.

Mrs. Fernandez has certainly recognised this change to the American region. She now describes British claims to the Falklands as outdated clichés and an affront to a world ‘we all dream of’. ‘The world has changed’ she argues, and there are now ‘new players’ to consider.

With these ‘new players’ and China’s expansion pushing the international situation ever closer to a Bi-Polar order, perhaps the most vital question of all is whether the International Community is prepared to accept a 21st century Argentinean occupation of the Falklands. Britain can currently rest assured that the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination is legally backed up by a UN resolution. The referendum in 2013 will undoubtedly return a verdict of support for the status quo, limiting Argentina’s options to regain the Islands through diplomatic means. If the extreme scenario were to occur, the future of the Islands would depend on both Britain’s capability to retaliate, and the willingness of the International Community to intervene.

There are certainly enough examples from history to show that a nation’s public are willing to tolerate an increase in military spending, even in times of austerity, if it means protecting an ally and scoring a victory over an old enemy. However, with cuts to defence spending starting to take place already, the British public may not even be able to make this decision whereas the Argentines might. With South America carving out its own identity away from the United States and Europe, and Argentina’s increased economic ties with China, the Veto wielding UN Security Council member, Britain cannot rely on the willingness of NATO or the UN to intervene in what would be a relatively minor conflict in their eyes. Argentina may just have enough leverage and motivation to reclaim the islands, and unfortunately, a referendum may not be enough to stop them.


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