With the world’s attention focused on Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of the Syrian civilian uprising, and with the increasing likelihood of a strike by Israel to thwart Iran’s relentless drive to obtain nuclear weapons, perhaps the most underreported international story is the increasingly heated dispute between Britain and Argentina in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is an unfolding issue that could say much about the way the U.S. handles its alliances, including those in the Asia-Pacific region.
Thirty years ago, on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly assembled and dispatched a formidable naval task force to retake the islands, which had been a British possession since 1833. On June 14, Argentine forces surrendered to the Royal Marines. The conflict was brief and violent, with both nations losing ships and hundreds of sailors and soldiers. The war was, however, a decisive victory for the United Kingdom.
As the 30th anniversary of the war approached, in December, Argentinian President Christina Kirchner vowed that her nation would reclaim the Islas Las Malvinas, as the Falklands are called in Argentina. She stated that “[i]n the 21st century [Britain] continues to be a crude colonial power in decline.” She branded British Prime Minister David Cameron “arrogant” and said his defense in parliament of the right of the people of the Falklands to self-determination was an expression of “mediocrity and stupidity.”
Argentina’s Foreign Minister, Hector Timerman, claims that Cameron’s defense of the Falklands sovereignty “is perhaps the last refuge of a declining power.” Prince William aka Flight Lieutenant Wales, who is currently piloting a Royal Air Force rescue helicopter in the Falklands, has been labeled a “conquistador” by Argentine officials.
In a diplomatic offensive, Kirchner persuaded Argentina’s partners in the Mercosur trade block – Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – to ban civilian ships flying the Falklands’ flag from entering their ports. Mercosur members had previously banned British warships on Falklands duty from their ports. In December, the 33-country Community of Latin American and Caribbean States unanimously backed Argentina’s “legitimate rights in the sovereignty dispute” over the Falklands and South Georgia.
This past week, in response to the U.K.’s dispatch of its newest destroyer, HMS Dauntless, to patrol the South Atlantic, Timerman officially complained to the United Nations Security Council that Britain had “militarized” the region. Given the timing of his complaint, just weeks before the anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the islands, it can be assumed that Timerman lacks a sense of irony. Argentina now claims that the United Kingdom is using the 3,000 residents of the Falklands as a mere pretense for its desire to maintain a South Atlantic “empire.” In his U.N. filing, Timerman noted: “[i]t is the last ocean that is controlled by the United Kingdom – Britannia rules only the South Atlantic.”
While it seems unlikely that Argentina would risk another humiliating defeat by invading the Falklands in the near term, the temptation of appealing to nationalism to mask an economic or political crisis combined with the desire to control what appear to be significant South Atlantic oil reserves means that another Argentine military adventure cannot be ruled out. There are four key takeaways from the current situation with implications that stretch much further than the issue at hand:
First, military weakness is provocative. Argentina ramped up its aggressive rhetoric and diplomatic efforts to reclaim the Falklands only after P.M. Cameron announced massive cuts to the Royal Navy and British ground forces. The decommissioning last December of the U.K.’s sole remaining aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, well before its service life ended, and the sale of Britain’s 50 G-9 Sea Harrier fighter jets to the U.S. Marine Corps, seems to have emboldened the Argentines. In 1982, the Royal Navy had approximately 90 warships from which it could assemble a task force. Today it has 30. Indeed, most experts believe that while it would be very difficult for the Argentine military to successfully invade the islands, it would be nearly impossible for the U.K. to retake them without an aircraft carrier in the event that Argentina was successful in overrunning Britain’s key air base at Mount Pleasant.
There’s a clear analogy between Argentina’s response to the U.K.’s defense cuts and what we can expect in the South China Sea and Persian Gulf from China and Iran, respectively, as massive sequestration cuts threaten to decimate the United States military. Indeed, the Obama administration announced this week that the U.S. Navy will decommission 7 Ticonderoga class cruisers and 2 amphibious warships in 2012 alone. There’s no doubt that Beijing, Tehran and even Moscow are watching the slashing of the U.S. defense budget with the same attention that Buenos Aires is paying to the decline of the Royal Navy.