Why China Looks to Argentina’s Southern Hemisphere

The Chinese government has been making diplomatic overtures to areas close to the polar regions as an integral part of its maritime strategy. Beijing’s outreach is not only steadily expanding in the Southern Hemisphere but it maintains a low profile by not questioning the Western order in the region, especially the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS).

After being a ‘strategic backwater’, the Southern Hemisphere has taken on a new dimension for Chinese interests in South America. Beijing has been increasing its diplomatic engagement with regional countries, especially Argentina, through a number of economic, socio-cultural, and, to a lesser extent, military agreements. The delivery of vaccines and the intention to accelerate an investment plan worth US$30 million appears to be a major strategy. China is focusing on a few geopolitically sensitive projects in Argentina, all of which are strategic: to control air and maritime space and strategic installations in territorial areas monitored by Beijing over Antarctica and the South Atlantic. But questions are rising about China’s intentions.

For Xi Jinping’s administration, Argentina stands out for its strategic location, the permeability of its rulers and also for coinciding with its expansion of economic and military power. In different regions of this South American country, China is undertaking large-scale investments and infrastructure initiatives. For instance, in addition to positioning itself in the province of Neuquén, it has set its sights on the city-port of Ushuaia in the region of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and the South Atlantic Islands, and the region of San Juan on the border with Chile.

Growing Chinese Vigilantism

The first project began in 2014, through a bilateral agreement between the Chinese Moon Exploration Program represented by the company Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC) under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the National Commission of Space Activities (CONAE) of Argentina. The agreement identified the Argentinean space station of Bajada del Agrio as the most favorable site to host a Chinese base in the Southern Hemisphere.

The project became operational in 2017 on a 200- hectare site and represents the third of a global network and the first outside of China. It has a 110-tonne, 35-metre diameter antenna for deep space exploration (telemetry and technology for “ground-based tracking, command and data acquisition”), where the CLTC has a special exploration license for a period of 50 years.

The reactions of the international community, especially the U.S. and the European Union, to the Chinese advance are one of concern, not only because of their position in space but given that the investments are intended to monitor, spy on and collect information from the satellites of the Atlantic Alliance countries.

In May 2016, a document issued by the State Council Information Office on China’s military strategy came to light. It contained six chapters, stating that China’s air force would implement its approach to territorial air defense by building an airspace defense force as a structure that can meet the requirements of airborne operations, strategic projection and comprehensive support.

The mention of “outer space” raised concerns among the U.S. government and European Union (EU) countries about the potential for the base to be used for military and geopolitical purposes over the Southern Hemisphere and Antarctica. Another element that has given rise to suspicions is the existence of “secret clauses” in a document signed by the General Directorate of Legal Counsel (DICOL) of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship with the Chinese government.

In that document, written in early 2013, reference is made to granting the “People’s Republic of China, the China General Office of Launch Control and Satellite Tracking (CLTC), its authorities and its employees in the construction and operation of the same, a series of privileges, rights, powers, exemptions and guarantees of great breadth. The agreement limits the powers of the Argentine authorities to dictate measures that may interfere with China’s activities.

China has developed different bases–some of them dual use–located mainly in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, to secure its supply of raw materials as well as its geopolitical projection. These have been dubbed as the “string of pearls” and are strategically planned according to Beijing’s strategic needs. Now it seems this logic of strategic interests is being extended to the Latin American Southern Hemisphere.

At the End of the World

The second project is related to the construction of a multifunctional port in the city of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego territory, a region which is close to Argentina’s Antarctic. Chinese diplomacy has been encouraging the national and local authorities to build this logistics operations center as fast as possible.

The multi-phase project would cost $300 million, and the move by the Shaanxi Coal Group is strikingly similar to all Chinese investments in Latin America: Projects that introduce millions of dollars without taking into account the environmental impact or geopolitical considerations.

The proposal is not recent, but was presented in the framework of the visit of the Chinese Minister of Defence, General Wei Fenghe to Buenos Aires in 2019, who highlighted the interest of Chinese state-owned companies in participating in tenders to build this Antarctic Logistics Hub in Ushuaia. The presence of a Chinese base could be interpreted as an important strategic move in the framework of the Belt and Road (BRI) project to expand the monitoring and logistical control capacity of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) over the Strait of Magellan.

A Chinese site at a strategic point for international maritime navigation (the junction of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans is also used every year by China’s massive fishing fleet) raises fears of its dominance of the southern part of the world. Added to this is the negative impact on the valuable ecosystem of the region, especially the natural peat production and biosystem richness of Peninsula Mitre.

China could establish a maritime corridor for its fishing vessels, which operate at the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and routinely attract international criticism for illegal fishing. Its fleet circles around the southern tip of Argentina and heads north into the Pacific along the coasts of Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. The heightened maritime tension in South American waters coincides with Beijing’s increasingly close relationship with the region.

The Dragon Tail

The third project, funded by China, is also part of Beijing’s development activities in sensitive areas of Argentina in the Southern Hemisphere. The two countries have collaborated on the commissioning of the CART (China-Argentina Radio Telescope), a 40-metre-high, 1,000-tonne facility that will place the South American country in a position of global importance for astronomical studies.

The CART radio telescope project began to be discussed in 2004 between the two countries and is now a step away from becoming a reality. Soon, its parts are expected to leave Beijing for the port of Buenos Aires. Under the supervision of Chinese Ambassador Zou Xiaoli in Argentina, CART will be located some 250 km from San Juan City on the space station inaugurated in 1964.

The main instrument of the Cesco Station is the Double Astrographic Telescope, the only instrument of its kind in the southern hemisphere, with which–among other important works–photographs of Halley’s Comet were taken during the 1986 passage. CART could act in coordination with the world’s largest radio telescope, located in the province of Guizhou in southwest China, which is more than half a kilometer in diameter and is known as FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope).

A not so minor detail is that the Chinese government agencies involved, beyond scientific purposes, depend directly on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, so the hypothesis of military use is possible. The regulations, as in other examples, establish sovereign limitations on the Argentine state with regard to Chinese activities on its territory. In practice, CART Radio Telescope can be considered part of a strategic deployment that has incorporated Patagonia into the geopolitical chessboard that immediately pits China against the U.S. and its allies in the Western Pacific region, and now by extension includes the southern cone of the American hemisphere.

What draws attention is that China’s interests in the South Atlantic, although they are directly linked to trade and investment, are not limited to these alone. In terms of security, it is true that China does not have in stricto sensu a permanent military base in the region, which is the case with the rest of the Western powers. However, we should not overlook the fact that in recent years the Chinese presence in regions such as Antarctica has been increasing. This is evident from the establishment of its fourth base in 2014, and the fact that, in parallel, it has announced the construction of a fifth facility on the white continent. Faced with this scenario, the opening of space research centers in different regions of Argentina opens up a whole range of concerns that constitute the starting point for a Chinese projection based on its hard power in the Southern Hemisphere.

Although the U.S. continues to be the main military actor in the region, both in terms of its military bases and in terms of arms sales and the number of combined military exercises, Beijing’s strategy not limited to just the military aspect, but exceeds it in the inclusion of non-military resources such as the increase of its investments in the purchase of raw materials. The Chinese incursion into Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is a developing phenomenon. The enormous financial and technological resources invested, and the strategic connotation of some of the Chinese projects merit close monitoring of the matter.

It is to be expected that the Chinese presence in Argentina will increase because it is a state located far from the conflict areas of the world, rich in natural resources and strategically located between a bioceanic strait and Antarctica. In this sense, it can be argued that China’s foreign policy is not based on the economic prosperity of the Southern Hemisphere, but on achieving its most immediate objectives, that is, the control of strategic logistical areas.