The increasing closeness between Argentina and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the issue of the Falkland Islands presents a challenge to the United Kingdom’s (UK) support for the self-determination of those living there, and their expressed desire to remain British. The PRC’s diplomatic rhetoric supporting Argentina’s territorial claim to the Falklands – particularly in multilateral institutions – has intensified in tandem with its recently deepening economic and political relationship with Buenos Aires.
Argentine claims on the Falklands caused a diplomatic row between the UK and PRC in February 2022, with Liz Truss, then Foreign Secretary, responding to a joint statement issued by Alberto Fernández and Xi Jinping, President of Argentina and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) respectively, in which the latter ‘reaffirmed its support for Argentina’s demand to fully exercise sovereignty on the Malvinas Islands’.
This is a clash of principles – self-determination as guaranteed under the United Nations (UN) charter on the one hand, and anti-colonial notions of self-determination (with a helping of historical revisionism) as espoused by Argentina and the PRC on the other. (The PRC receives reciprocal Argentine support for its revisionist position on Taiwan via the same principle.) However, the growing involvement of the PRC in the Falklands issue presents deeper challenges to British foreign policy and its position on the Falklands.
One of these is the PRC’s ability, via networks of influence such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and now possibly the BRICS group, to mobilise further support in developing countries for viewing self-determination through an anti-colonial lens, and for applying this view to the Falklands. This, however, is nothing new – the PRC’s push for a leadership role in developing countries is evident in Mao Zedong’s Three Worlds theory of 1974. But today, the PRC’s growing political-economic weight gives its voice greater gravity.
The PRC may seek to rally support further for the Argentine claim in the UN, particularly through the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation where it sits as a member. Geng Shuang, the PRC’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, has made repeated calls for an ‘end to colonialism’ in the Falklands, and alongside delegations from the ‘Group of 77’, the PRC has pushed for the UK to enter negotiations over the sovereignty dispute.
Standing against Argentina’s Chinese support solely on the principle of the Falklanders’ self-determination alone may not be a sufficient strategy for much longer.
This is not to say that any significant juridical process may challenge the UK’s sovereignty over the Falklands, but that the PRC could significantly weaken international support for Britain’s position, particularly amongst developing countries. The recent row over the European Union’s inclusion of the Argentine term ‘Las Malvinas’ alongside Falkland Islands when referring to the islands – in a statement following a diplomatic summit involving Argentina and other Latin American states – may be one example of many to follow unless the UK can shore up diplomatic support for its position.
How is Britain to respond? Standing against Argentina’s Chinese support solely on the principle of the Falklanders’ self-determination alone may not be a sufficient strategy for much longer. The role of the Falklands in Argentine nationalism must be recognised, as with Beijing’s willingness to use this to its own advantage. The UK needs to shore up greater support for its Falklands position.
This is one challenge which will have to be dealt with via holistic foreign policy options rather than specific engagement with the PRC. In this endeavour, His Majesty’s (HM) Government should continue to emphasise the centrality of the UN Charter to international affairs, something which chimes with criticism of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and how the UK’s allies and partners are framing their vision for achieving international stability. HM Government also should continue to think deeper about its engagement with developing countries, or ‘middle-ground powers’, and how it can better exert its economic and normative strength to shore up support for its position on the Falklands. There is certainly space for engaging the United States on this matter, too, by encouraging it to increase efforts in countering the PRC’s geoeconomic influence in South America, particularly investments and renminbi currency swap deals.
In addition, the current political uncertainty in Argentina surrounding the October 2023 presidential elections, with Fernández not running and Javier Milei, a libertarian-populist candidate, leading opinion polls, could create an opportunity for some form of direct rapprochement between the UK and Argentina. Britain could, if a less nationalist leader were elected, seek to revive the 2016 agreement (ended in March 2023 by Argentina) between the two countries which agreed to put aside the Falklands dispute in favour of better relations overall. Meanwhile, it is clear that the PRC’s Falklands rhetoric is a unique challenge for UK foreign policy moving forward. The CCP may need to be reminded of its professed policy of ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of other states
Nick Sundin is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University focusing on strategic narratives around the Belt and Road Initiative
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