Are Britain and Argentina Headed for Falkland Islands War Redux?

Last updated on April 7th, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Argentina's "Iron Lady" President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

You wouldn’t think the Falkland Islands would still be an issue; Britain soundly defeated Argentina back in 1982 when that country invaded and seized what it calls Las Malvinas. Now they’re ready for Round 2 – but, so far at least, a diplomatic Round 2. The Telegraph provides a timeline of tensions between the two countries since 1982 here.

To Americans the name might mean little, just as it means little to many British but a great deal to Argentinians, whose president is claiming that Britain is responsible for a “militarization of the South Atlantic”. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who last year called Britain “a crude colonial power in decline,” says that her country will “file a protest” with the United Nations:

“I have instructed our chancellor to formally present before the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly this militarization of the South Atlantic, which implies a great risk for international safety.”

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Prime Minister David Cameron somehow got the idea that accusing Argentina of “colonialism” was a good idea. It was an interesting choice of words from a country which once controlled a quarter of the earth’s land area and a fifth of the world’s population. Everyone seems very eager to be offended. Enter the local media.

For its part, reports the Guardian, the Falkland Islands newspaper Penguin News responded by calling President de Kirchner a “bitch.” Argentinians were upset; apparently Britain can be insulted as a “crude colonial power” but their president can’t be a bitch.

H.M.S. Dauntless

Britain will dispatch its newest destroy, the HMS Dauntless, to the islands in March, but the militarization charge seems a little over the top. For one thing, the Royal Navy says the deployment is entirely routine, the Dauntless set to relieve the older Type 23 frigate Montrose (the first Type 45 was actually sent to the Arabian Gulf, which should tell Argentina something about British priorities). For another, a destroyer, however modern and powerful, hardly has the cachet of say, the Great White Fleet Teddy Roosevelt sent around the world in 1907 in a display of American military might (that fleet was 16 battleships, not a single destroyer).  The problem may be that the destroyer, Britain’s most modern warship, is capable of, a navy source told the Telegraph, “[shooing] down Argentine fighters as soon as they take off from their bases..This will give Buenos Aires serious pause for thought.”

And it has, obviously.

To be fair, “militarize” is a popular word in diplomatic circles. The United States is using it in reference to Syria at the moment, threatening international militarization if President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t back down from attacking his own people. Also to be fair, that involvement would look more like what NATO did in Libya while Argentina is acting as though Britain is moving troops to an area that has not previously seen British troops, which is untrue.

And it is not as though Great Britain is any longer a dominant military power. The Falkland Islands, 480 kilometers east of South America’s southern tip, are not the “Gibraltar of the South Atlantic”, though it did (reasonably enough) build a new airfield and reinforced the islands’ garrison. Nor does Britain have any imperial designs on Argentina or any other nearby country.

More strangely still, Argentina is upset that 29 year-old Prince William, a Royal Air Force helicopter pilot and second in line to the throne, has been sent to the Falklands as part of a six-week deployment.  The Argentine Foreign Ministry lamented that Argentines are saddened that he “will arrive on our soil in the uniform of a conquistador, and not with the wisdom of a statesman who works for peace and dialogue between nations.” Prince William is in the Royal Air Force and could hardly go any other way but in uniform and the appeal to conquistador imagery is overly dramatic since the young Royal is not leading any invasions. Prince Harry is about to deploy to Afghanistan as an Apache helicopter pilot, having already spent 10-weeks there as an  infantryman in 2008.

As it is, the Falklands are already largely isolated from South America, its ships banned from Argentinian and other South American ports and only Chile provides air service to the islands.

We live in a post-colonial world and it’s all well and fine that the old European empires have divested themselves of their colonies for the most part (a notable exception being Gibraltar, another British possession). The problem for Argentina is that Britain has owned the islands since 1833 (it declared sovereignty in 1765) and its 2,500 residents, mostly of British, Scandinavian, Portuguese, and Gibraltarian descent, are and wish to remain British. They are not Argentinian; they speak English and are British citizens.

The Falklands are not leased as was Hong Kong (neither is Gibraltar) but is, like distant Hawaii is to the United States, sovereign British territory. Another problem is that, way back then, when Britain was establishing her ownership of the islands, there was no such thing as Argentina – 1765 predates 1816, the year of the Argentine Declaration of Independence. Any contretemps over the islands before that date were between Argentina’s imperial masters, Spain, and Great Britain.

The problem might be oil – a speculated 8.3 billion barrels of oil undersea – rather than a 30-year-old sting to national pride. Everybody suddenly discovers a vested interest in a place if there is oil at stake. And Argentina is no longer an exporter but an importer of hydrocarbons. President de Kirchner has essentially admitted the role of natural resources as a cause for future conflict. And Britain is defending not just 2,500 distant citizens but its economy. Currently, £75m are spent annually in defense of the islands.

The war of 1982 wasn’t much of a war by modern standards, lasting just 74 days and costing Argentina 645 dead and Britain just 255. The United States, France, UK, U.S., Germany, Italy, France, Japan and Canada all sided with Britain. Currently, de Kirchner has made her country’s claim a pan-regional cause and should it come to war, it comes as no surprise that Hugo Chávez, said Venezuela would support Argentina. Argentine  Foreign Minister Hector Timerman says that “Argentina is not alone, Great Britain is alone.” This is not true, of course. The United States, which has offered to mediate (back in 2010 when oil drilling was announced), will not abandon Great Britain now just as it did not abandon Great Britain in 1982. And caught in the middle of a waters infested with nationalism and oil addiction, are those 2,500 Falkland Islanders who feel themselves British to the core.

de Kircher Image from the Guardian

HMS Dauntless image from Wikimedia Commons

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