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Beyond Rhetoric: Could the Heightened Falklands Debate Threaten British Strategic Interests In Latin America?

Commentary, 31 January 2012
Americas, Defence Policy
Relations between Latin America and the UK are at a level unseen for almost two centuries, but attempts by Argentina to diplomatically isolate the UK from the region over the Falkland Islands could seriously impact British strategic interests across the continent.

Relations between Latin America and the UK are at a level unseen for almost two centuries, but attempts by Argentina to diplomatically isolate the UK from the region over the Falkland Islands could seriously impact British strategic interests across the continent.

Hague FCO Flickr
Hague: 'The days of Britain's retreat from Latin America are over' Foreign Office/Flickr

By Matt Ince for

Political tensions between the UK and Argentina have again escalated as Argentina's President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, condemned the British Prime Minister David Cameron's recent comment that her government has adopted a 'colonialist' mentality in its claims to the Falkland Islands[1] - or 'Las Malvinas' as they are known in Argentina. In this latest exchange, part of a series of recent political clashes between the UK and Argentina, Mrs Kirchner again called for negotiations over the sovereignty of the Islands to re-open. Her comments followed the burning of British flags by Argentinian protesters outside the British embassy in Buenos Aires and the announcement by Prime Minister Cameron in January that Britain's National Security Council had undertaken a comprehensive review of the UK's military and diplomatic policy towards the Falkland Islands. They also come ahead of Prince Williams's scheduled visit to the Falklands in February, a trip that is likely to cause further controversy between the two countries as the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War approaches. As a number of countries across Latin America continue to support Argentina's claims to the Islands and against the backdrop of growing hemispheric integration, British strategic interests across the region could therefore come under increased pressure in the upcoming months; unless the UK successfully conveys the message that acceptance of Argentina's Falklands foreign policy is no longer a risk-free strategy.

An Escalation of Tensions

Recent exchanges of confrontational and undiplomatic rhetoric between the UK and Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, represents the latest in a series of politically charged clashes between the two countries in recent months.  Most notably, tensions escalated over the summer, during Argentina's presidential election campaign, when Prime Minister Cameron's statement that 'as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory - full stop, end of story', prompted the Argentinian president to call him 'arrogant'. She went on to accuse the UK of being a crude colonial power in decline, whose refusal to reopen negotiations over the Falklands bordered on 'stupidity'.[2]

The Falkland Islands have been at the centre of a territorial dispute between Argentina and the UK that dates back to the nineteenth century. Yet despite the fact that the Islands have been peacefully inhabited and administered under British sovereignty since 1833, with the exception of the two month occupation by Argentina in 1982, the Argentinian president has repeatedly exploited national grievances on the subject in order to strengthen her own political standing amongst her electorate. The dispute has also been further fuelled by UK oil exploration around the Falklands which began about two years ago and has highlighted the geopolitical stakes involved in the hunt for fossil fuels around the Islands.[3] This has sparked repeated accusations that Britain has taken Argentine resources from the Islands and the waters surrounding them, which, according to Argentinian officials, breaks a UN resolution that forbids unilateral development in disputed waters.[4]

Beyond Rhetoric: Regional Sympathy for Argentina?

Political tensions between the UK and Argentina have also continued to grow as recent attempts by Argentina to diplomatically isolate Britain have resulted in its gaining further regional solidarity over its claims to the Falklands. The latest example of this came in the form of an announcement in December 2011 by Mercosur, a regional grouping which includes Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, to ban ships sailing under the Falkland Islands flag from docking at their ports. This recent announcement is reminiscent of the decisions by Uruguay and Brazil to restrict British military ships from accessing key ports in the two countries. In September 2010 the Uruguayan authorities prevented HMS Gloucester from docking in Montevideo; and in January 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff - in an attempt to accommodate Argentina and reach out to the left-wing grassroots of her own party - refused permission for HMS Clyde to dock in Rio de Janeiro during a routine transition to and from the Falklands.

The decision by Mercosur also comes after Argentina's claims to the Falklands were backed by all thirty-three members of the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States, a newly formed organisation for regional co-operation known by its Spanish language acronym CELAC, during its inaugural meeting in Caracas at the beginning of December 2011.[5] Prior to this meeting Argentina's Falklands policy was also backed by the Organization of American States (OAS), who again supported Argentinian calls for negotiations over the Falklands to be reopened during a meeting held in San Salvador in June 2011. The draft declaration proposed by Argentina on 'The Question of the Malvinas Islands' was passed by unanimous consent. It stated the position that Argentina and the UK should resume negotiations as soon as possible in order to find a peaceful solution to the dispute. The declaration, also supported by the US, further stated that the OAS would continue to examine the issue at its subsequent sessions until a definitive settlement is reached.[6]

While not all Latin American countries necessarily agree with Argentina's Falkland's policy, for many humouring its president on the subject represents the easiest diplomatic course of action to take in order to keep Buenos Aires on side within regional forums. This is especially the case for Brazil which, having beaten Argentina in the race to become Latin America's dominant regional power, now needs issues upon which to agree with President Fernández in order to counterbalance their numerous differences of interest. Nevertheless, for the UK the major concern is that if Argentina continues to push this issue within regional circles, and other countries continue to go along with Argentina's claims, the issue will not disappear and Britain will have to keep on defending the self determination of the Falkland Islanders against a growing opposition who, at the same time, are becoming increasingly empowered upon the world stage.

Implications for the UK

As the UK attempts to strengthen its ties throughout Latin America, heightened debate over the Falkland Islands could therefore have a lasting impact upon British strategic interests across the region in the period ahead. While it is highly unlikely that the current dispute would again escalate into armed conflict between the UK and Argentina, Britain's national interest increasingly requires active engagement with a number of emerging Latin American countries; to promote British business, sustain the UK's global influence and fulfil its primary objective of 'shaping a stable world'.[7] This is a sentiment that was reiterated by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who, on his latest visit to Brazil, announced that the days of British diplomatic retreat from Latin America are over and that the UK has begun its most ambitious efforts to strengthen ties within the region for two hundred years.[8]

This is a policy which has already seen the re-opening the British Embassy in El Salvador, the setting up a new consulate in Recife, Brazil, and thirty-seven Ministerial visits to the continent in the last eighteen months. During this time the UK has also signed a 'science without borders' agreement which will bring 10,000 Brazilian students to British universities over the next four years and Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne has announced £180,000 of new government funding to support vital security projects across Central America. UK exports to the region have also continued to grow, particularly in Brazil where they were up 23 per cent in 2010 and a further 9 per cent in 2011.[9] This includes BAE Systems winning its first big naval contract in Brazil worth £133m for the sale of three ocean patrol vessels,[10] a deal which underscores the rising importance of developing economies as new markets for Britain's defence industry.

Nevertheless, Argentina's continued ability to mobilise regional sympathy over the Falklands debate could result in the UK being further denied a level of access within the region that it once took for granted; as Argentina becomes increasingly able to influence the way in which a number of Latin American countries might interact with Britain in the future. In particular, as Argentina strengthens its relations throughout Latin America, the UK might find itself losing regional support; particularly as a number of Latin American nations work towards strengthening regional co-operation and integration in initiatives like CELAC. This could not only affect the UK at a military and diplomatic level, but also in terms of its trade relations and future investment opportunities throughout Latin America at a time when they are becoming more important to the UK than ever before. Perhaps more worrying for British policy makers is also the unpredictability of the future US position on the Falklands dispute and how their support, or lack of, could further fuel Argentina's confidence on the issue and strengthen their ability to isolate the UK from the region. As Washington increasingly begins to conduct business with Latin American countries on their own terms, in order to secure continued influence within its own backyard, it is therefore not entirely unrealistic to assume that the US might begin to favour Argentina over the UK on the Falklands issue in order to satisfy its own national interests. The possible realignment of US foreign policy towards Latin America, which recognises and is prepared to endorse Argentina's claim to the Falklands, could be a further awkward diplomatic challenge for the UK to overcome in the coming years.

No Longer a Risk-Free Strategy

At a time when the UK is seeking to enhance diplomatic relations and boost its business links throughout Latin America - most notably in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia - the continued inclusion of the Falklands debate within Argentina's current populist agenda does not bode well for the UK or for its prospective regional interests. Nonetheless, Britain still remains in a relatively strong position to dictate the terms of its relationship with the region, given that the UK currently accounts for 4 per cent of all foreign direct investment in Latin America and the Caribbean. As well as accounting for 12 per cent of direct foreign investment in Chile and 16 per cent of direct foreign investment in Colombia, it is also the joint-fourth largest investor within the region.[11] The UK is therefore not without options and economic clout within this debate.

But to shape its future relationship with Latin America, the UK must first regain the initiative and convey the message to Latin America, and indeed the US, that acceptance of Argentina's claims to the Falklands is not a risk-free strategy. Now that the dust of Argentina's recent presidential elections has settled, and as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War, the UK has an opportunity to make it clear that there is a cost to supporting Argentina's posture - such as less favourable relations with the UK. But if the UK fails to speak out, it risks allowing Argentina to further escalate the dispute, and to draw more states  to the Argentine position  - and Britain could lose the economic and military access it might otherwise have enjoyed throughout the region for years to come.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Prime Minister David Cameron, Prime Minister's Question, House of Commons, 18 January 2012, Column 745  (accessed 29.01.12)

[2] BBC News, 'Argentine leader say UK 'arrogant' over Falklands', 17 June 2011 (accessed 29.01.12)

[3] Sylvia Pfeifer and Michael Kavanagh, 'Exploring for oil in Falklands threatens to open old wounds', Financial Times, 22 December 2011. (accessed 27.01.12).

[4] BBC News, 'Argentina Senate condemns Cameron's Falklands Statement', 26 January 2012 (accessed 29.01.12)

[5] Andrew Cawthorne, 'New Latin American body raps Britain', Reuters, 3 December 2011 (accessed 29.01.12)

[6] Organisation of American States (OAS), Declarations and Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly, Forty-First Regular Session, AG/doc.5232/11, (San Salvador, El Salvador: 7 June 2011), p.6.

[7] HM Government, A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The National Security Strategy (London: The Stationery Office, cm7953, October 2010), p.11.

[8] Foreign Secretary William Hague, 'The days of Britain's retreat from Latin America are over', Comments made in Rio de Janeiro, 19 January 2012. Full transcript available online: (accessed 26.01.12).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Carola Hoyos, 'BAE wins £133m Brazil navy contract', Financial Times, 2 January 2012. (accessed 26.01.12)

[11] United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 'Foreign Direct Investment in Latin America and the Caribbean 2010', Briefing Paper, May 2011, p.9, p.44.

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