China Disputes British Sovereignty Over Falkland Islands
Four decades after the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina ended bitterly for Buenos Aires, a statement from China on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics, that affirmed Beijing’s support for Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands, had stirred discussions around the long-standing dispute. Argentina and Britain have long disputed ownership of the Falklands, with Argentina claiming sovereignty over the British-run islands it calls the Malvinas.
Since the 18th century, the Falkland Islands, located off the coast of Argentina in the south Atlantic Ocean, have always been subjected to colonisation and conquests by Britain, France, Spain and Argentina. Prior to the 1700s, the islands were uninhabited, with France first establishing a colony there in 1764. The next year, when the British arrived to claim the islands for themselves, it marked the start of a dispute that has been ongoing ever since. By 1811, colonial powers had left, with the islands largely being used and visited by sealing and whaling ships. But in November 1820, an American privateer David Jewett once again kick-started a fresh dispute that till then had significantly subsided, by claiming possession of the islands on behalf of Argentina. There are varying opinions by academics on whether this possession was undertaken specifically on instructions from Argentina or whether Jewett unilaterally made such a decision.
Over a period of two decades, minor conflicts followed between Argentina and Britain, with both asserting dominance over the other, alternatively finding victory in the conflict. That ended in 1840, when the Falklands became a Crown colony and Britain sent Scottish settlers to officially establish a community, one that was largely pastoral. Strategically, the Falkland Islands were important to Britain and that was evident in how they were used by London as a military base in the South Atlantic Ocean, both during the First and Second World War. However, following the end of the Second World War, the islands once again became a cause of dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina, with both asserting sovereignty over the islands.
The dispute continued in the post WWII global scenario. Argentina’s assertion of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands during the presidency of Juan Perón briefly soured relations with the United Kingdom. In December, 1965, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2065, a non-binding resolution that recognized the existence of a sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over these islands, that urged both countries to find a peaceful solution to the dispute. Over the next three years, both Argentina and the United Kingdom held talks about the islands, but those were impeded because settlers in the Falklands, who were originally from the United Kingdom dissented, forcing a halt to all negotiations between the countries till 1977. In the run up to the war, the United Kingdom’s Thatcher government strongly considered handing over the Falkland Islands to Argentina because of difficulties in financially maintaining the islands. In the background of these developments, conflict between the two countries over these islands were bubbling beneath the surface.
The Falklands sit about 480 km (298 miles) northeast of the southern tip of South America. Fishing accounts for around half of its $300 million GDP, which along with oil and gas exploration, helped propel economic growth by 11 per cent a year on average between 2009-2018. The economy ground to a halt last year when COVID-19 hit sectors such as tourism. The departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union has also presented a challenge because it has led to tariffs on the territory’s fish exports. In contrast with several other small overseas territories, the Falkland Islands does not receive any direct budgetary assistance from the UK.
China's BRI is a trillion-dollar push to improve trade links across the globe by building landmark infrastructure, and the inclusion of Argentina is a major win for Beijing in Latin America. Chinese companies invested more than $20 billion in non-financial direct investment on projects in BRI countries in 2021. Argentine President Fernández has improved his country’s ties with China, which surpassed Brazil as Argentina’s top trading partner in 2020. Bilateral trade increased by 56 percent from 2007 to 2019, reaching $15 billion. Argentina joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in March 2021, and now finally, it has formally joined China’s BRI. As China aims to expand beyond its immediate region of influence and forge economic relations with South American countries, its support to their stated territorial position is expected to deepen the partnership between them to China’s benefit. It has been interpreted as a plan to occupy space in a region that the United States has traditionally treated as its own backyard. Further, Beijing has repeatedly chastised Britain’s “colonial mindset” in relation to the Falkland Islands, which overwhelmingly opted to remain a British overseas territory in a plebiscite in 2013.
The deal came as Argentine President Alberto Fernandez made a three-day visit to China during which both sides also said they would continue to support each other on issues concerning sovereign interests. The statement backed each other's territorial claims, the Falkland Islands for Argentina and China's dispute over Taiwan. Relations with China have already been strained on multiple fronts, including Britain's joining a US-led diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics to protest China's human rights record.
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