China’s stance on Falkland Islands reflects internationalist approach

Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, a ten-week conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom that took place in 1982. Two British Overseas Territories in the Atlantic Ocean, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, were at the center of this undeclared conflict.

Argentina’s invasion and occupation of the Falkland Islands prompted a swift response from the British government, which has held the territory as a Crown colony since 1841. 

While most of the international community called for cease-fires and official peace talks, the United States reluctantly condemned and imposed economic sanctions against Argentina. The decision was a relative shock to the Argentine junta, who assumed their support for the Reagan administration’s anti-communist efforts in Central America would at least convince the United States to remain neutral. 

Over 800 casualties and $1.9 billion in military costs later, an eventual Argentine surrender returned the islands to British control. Argentina, however, maintains its claim to the territory, citing close proximity and its own history of colonial settlement in the Falklands. 

Buenos Aires and London restored diplomatic relations in 1989 through a joint statement after meeting in Madrid, but neither has since changed its position. In an unsuccessful renewed effort to seize the territory, Argentina declared the Falkland Islands an official Argentine province in its 1994 Constitution, but the islands remained under British jurisdiction. 

This unresolved dispute had faded into relative obscurity until last month when the Argentinian President, Alberto Fernandez, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. In a joint statement following their meeting, the Xi government turned heads in the West by reiterating “its support for the demands of full exercise of sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands.”

China has a long history of criticizing the United Kingdom’s “colonial mindset.” In fact, the East Asian power has voted in favor of Argentina’s position on the Falklands during two separate U.N. General Assembly resolutions (1965 and 1982). 

But such an overt turn to a long-forgotten dispute drew a quick response from British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who said in a tweet that Britain “completely reject[s] any questions over sovereignty of the Falklands… we will defend their right to self determination.” 

While the back-and-forth statements from London and Beijing have occupied most headlines surrounding the Falklands impasse, Fernandez and Xi also announced the addition of Argentina to China’s growing Belt and Road initiative (BRI), with a particular focus on agricultural cooperation. Over the past decade, trade between the two countries has increased significantly, with an average worth of $16 billion per year

As of December 2021, 145 countries have signed Memorandums of Understanding indicating their participation in China’s Belt and Road, a massive global infrastructure project that studies have predicted will boost the global GDP by over $7 trillion per annum. Argentina is the largest Latin American economy and the 21st country in the region to join the initiaitve. 

Four decades later, the Falkland Islands are no longer the center of a strictly bilateral dispute between Britain and Argentina. While neither side has taken any recent military action, the impasse reflects the lasting grievances against Western powers throughout the global south. Alternatively, China’s history of support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the global south under the Deng regime’s internationalist agenda has not been forgotten by many of today’s developing states. 

This legacy has historically bolstered Chinese interests on the global stage. In 1971, the People’s Republic of China was voted as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, largely due to the support of the developing world. After receiving up to 34% of UN votes from newly independent African countries, then-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, said, “It is our African brothers who have carried us into the UN.” 

As elements of the CCP’s internationalism become increasingly visible in its growing Belt and Road Initiative, China has continued to back developing states like Argentina on issues of imperialism and sovereignty, perhaps providing Beijing a degree of leverage unavailable to competitors in the West. 

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