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Changes on the map

The United States is foreseeing, on a very hypothetical and hazy horizon, a military conflict with China, and that presumption is reshaping global geopolitics

Javier Milei
Javier Milei receives the head of the United States Southern Command, Laura Richardson.Argentine Presidency (via REUTERS)
Carlos Pagni

Politics changes the meaning of maps. Driven by the winds of the world, the periphery can become the center. And vice versa. Secondary areas acquire a new value. A mutation of this nature is taking place in the far south of the American continent. An episode drew attention last Thursday, when the Argentine president, Javier Milei, traveled to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to meet with the head of the United States Southern Command, Laura J. Richardson, and announce the creation of a naval base in that town.

To gauge the dimension of that announcement, we need to zoom out and observe the global scene. An expanding phenomenon is that the hardening of American rhetoric regarding China is increasingly being modulated with military arguments. Shortly before traveling to Argentina, on March 14, General Richardson made a report before the Committee on Armed Services of the U.S. Senate. One of the key issues of her presentation was the need to neutralize Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America. Regarding China, Richardson said: “The People’s Republic of China (PCR) understands the importance of economics and the intertwined role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in achieving its Chinese Dream — the PRC reclamation of China’s central role in world affairs. In Latin America and the Caribbean, USSOUTHCOM recognizes the opportunity to collaborate with our partners, build their capacity, and increase their resiliency to the pervasive challenges and threats they face. Conversely, the PRC is exploiting a fragile security environment and taking advantage of the region’s need for economic investment to gain influence and advance its malign agenda. The PRC knows that economic power is a prerequisite for global military power and it is imperative that we view the PRC’s economic activities, particularly in the Americas, as connected to their global political and military desires.”

This message, in which the adjective “malign” is repeated several times, could be formulated even more crudely. The United States is foreseeing, on a very hypothetical, hazy horizon, a military conflict with China, and that presumption is reshaping the map of the world. This mutation can be seen more clearly by observing the role that the Panama Canal has played over the years. After its expansion in 2016, this canal registered 14,000 ship crossings per year, which means 6% of global trade. The first users of that passage are the United States. And 13% of traffic goes to China.

What would happen if a military confrontation were to occur between the United States and China? Most likely, the Panama Canal would be closed to obstruct the flow of food and energy to Chinese ports. This scenario would make naval traffic through the far south of the continent a strategic matter. That is the reason why Americans have first insisted that the Chinese must not build a logistics base there for supplying and repairing ships; and, second, why the U.S. has just announced that it is building a base itself, taking advantage of the availability offered to them by the Milei government, which has declared itself an unconditional ally of Washington.

The South Atlantic seems destined to have a previously unknown significance in the global game. The role of Argentina would also change. Until now, the main geopolitical fact of relevance in that area was the presence in the Falkland Islands of a NATO power, the United Kingdom, associated with its historical ally, Chile. A combination between the United States and Argentina would alter the relative weight of these actors. Milei was explicit in his speech to Richardson: Argentina’s setback in the area was a missed opportunity, which the Chileans took advantage of by extending the only logistical link between the American continent and Antarctica. This projection over the South Pole is another of the arguments in defense of the construction of that naval base.

Milei did not justify this association with the United States with pragmatic arguments. For him, it is an ideological mandate. On Thursday night, in that very distant city, he explained that the United States and Argentina share the same ideas of political liberalism and economic capitalism. He regretted that his country had distanced itself from them for 100 years. But he assured that he will now resume that historical thread, joining those who defend the values of the West against those who seek to subjugate “our freedom.”

If you connect these words, in which an echo of the Cold War can be detected, with a few facts, you will see how Milei’s policy, in addition to being pro-American, is also anti-Chinese. The first gesture that demonstrated this was his explicit refusal to join the BRICS, a club of countries led by Xi Jinping. After the defeat of leftist Peronism in Argentina, BRICS leaders ruled out Argentina’s incorporation and hoped that their representatives would stop attending the meetings. That is why they were surprised when, speaking from Buenos Aires, the Foreign Ministry made the rejection explicit. That animosity had a much closer target than China: Lula da Silva’s Brazil, which is a founding member of that league.

Another reason for tension between the Milei government and China has to do with the operation of a Chinese deep space station in the Argentine province of Neuquén, in Patagonia, on the Andes Mountains. In her speech before the Senate, Richardson spoke of this establishment as part of the Chinese military rollout in the region. The statement refutes Beijing’s official position that it is a scientific base for observation of deep space, that is, without the capability to monitor the orbits in which the satellites move, many of them for military use. Richardson hinted about concerns that are more distressing for the military apparatus to which she belongs: the fear of systematic missile attacks that could target American satellites. The Argentine Ministry of Defense has ordered an inspection of the Neuquén base, which it designated with the euphemism of “visit,” but clarified that it would not be imminent.

The same ministry made another gesture: it preferred to buy a small fleet of North American F-16 fighter planes, sold by Denmark, in exchange for acquiring equivalent devices, sold by the Chinese through Pakistan. Conditioning this operation was one of the most relevant priorities of United States diplomacy in Buenos Aires in recent years.

What will be the Chinese reaction to these unfriendly movements? It’s a mystery. For now, the only tangible drawback in the bilateral relationship with Argentina goes back to before Milei’s arrival. It is the suspension of two gigantic hydroelectric plants planned in the province of Santa Cruz. Construction work in one of them did not exceed 40%. And in the other it barely reached 20%. The paralysis is apparently due to environmental concerns, but there was also a conflict with the local partner that the Argentine government had imposed during Cristina Kirchner’s presidency, the company Electroingeniería, closely linked to power. The fact is that China’s investment in that project is now on hold. And there are already a legion of laid-off workers.

There is one front on which the Chinese have great potential for damage: the currency swap line between the Argentine Central Bank and its equivalent, the People’s Bank of China. The reserves of that institution are very scarce and would collapse if an order came from Beijing to suspend this loan, which amounts to $18 billion, of which $4 billion are freely available. Perhaps this mystery will be cleared up in a few weeks, when Foreign Minister Diana Mondino travels to Beijing leading a trade mission.

The geopolitical developments of a military nature in the far south of the continent are a consequence of the political change that occurred in Argentina with the last presidential elections. That Copernican turn of events led Argentina from a Kirchnerism that had Bolivarian overtones to a conservative liberalism that is more aligned with the United States than the previous administrations of Mauricio Macri or even Carlos Menem in the 1990s. The assertion of the sagacious sociologist Juan Eugenio Corradi is proven yet again: the polarization of domestic politics is always taken advantage of by the great powers to obtain the alignment of smaller-scale countries in the global game of chess.

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