This isn't Falklands II
Feb 17 2010
Sabre-rattling over Malvinas oil serves a useful political purpose for Argentina's President Kirchner. But she's no Galtieri
It was Karl Marx who said "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce" – and in the case of the abruptly reigniting dispute over the Falkland Islands, aka Las Malvinas, there is reason to hope he was right. Argentina's latest protests, sparked by the prospect of an oil bonanza around the islands, could easily be dismissed as hot air. But that was the mistake Britain made last time, and almost 1,000 people paid with their lives.
The parallels with the runup to the 1982 war, echoing eerily down the years, are uncanny, although susceptible to exaggeration. The Iron Lady star of today's supposed sequel is not Britain's Margaret Thatcher. It is Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina's president and wife of her immediate presidential predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. She once styled herself "Evita with a clenched fist". She has shown she's not scared of a fight.
Like Thatcher, Kirchner has spent much of her time in office battling trade unions while trying to resuscitate an indebted, moribund economy. Regional analysts say the government, dependent on continuing international support since the country's $100bn debt default in 2001, is wary of unleashing a patriotic furore. But next year is presidential election year in Argentina.
If Kirchner and her husband can overcome corruption accusations arising from their substantial personal wealth, one or the other may seek a second term in office. And how better to set the blood racing, and the voters voting, than a noisy, passionate spat with frigid, faraway Britain? Kirchner is on record as describing Argentina's claim to sovereignty over the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands as "inalienable". It was a national duty, she said in 2008, to remove "the shameful presence of a colonial enclave".
Argentina's action this week in requiring shipping to obtain permits to travel to or through the disputed waters around the islands was immediately characterised as a "blockade' – another echo of 1982.
But islanders say they have been under economic siege by Argentina for many years and have survived. And there is no need this time for an exclusion zone of the type imposed by Britain after the invasion. A 500-square mile sovereign economic zone now surrounds the Falklands, protected by a Royal Navy destroyer, Typhoon jet fighters and about 1,300 military personnel.
Britain accepts Argentina is within its rights to impose rules on shipping that uses its ports. If the new regulations are enforced, oil industry experts say it will inevitably push up the cost of oil exploration. But suggestions in Buenos Aires that Argentina will attempt to enforce its authority on the high seas – or over what it calls its "national territory" around the Falklands – appear highly impractical at this point.
The first offshore oil rig to work the area since 1998 arrives off the islands this week, with drilling scheduled to start next year. Britain says such activity is entirely legal. "We have no doubt about our sovereignty over the Falklands islands and the surrounding maritime area," the British embassy in Buenos Aires said in a statement.
So exactly what foreign minister Jorge Taiana meant when he warned Argentina will try to stop the oilmen is unclear. "What they [the British oil company Desire Petroleum] are doing is illegitimate ... it's a violation of our sovereignty," Taiana said on Tuesday. "We will do everything necessary to defend and preserve our rights."
The capabilities to make good such declarations, however interpreted, are not wholly lacking. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Argentina's army and navy currently comprise 72,000 personnel. Its navy boasts three submarines, five destroyers and nine frigates (mostly secondhand), and a few patrol boats. The warships are armed with the feared Exocet missiles that inflicted so much damage in 1982. Argentina also has about 140 combat-capable aircraft, including Mirage fighters.
But unlike the dark days of the late, unlamented dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, nobody is seriously talking about resorting to main force. One possible avenue for Buenos Aires is to take its grievances back to the United Nations. It can also put pressure on Britain through regional organisations and bilaterally. Or – and this may be the smart move – it can bide its time while British firms and capital do the heavy lifting.
By some estimates, 60bn barrels of oil may be sitting under the sea around the Falklands, a potential North Sea-scale bonanza. But previous exploratory drilling has been disappointing and so far not a drop of sellable "black gold" has been extracted. Added to the political strains are the physical strains of working in such a southerly region. The sea in some areas reaches depths of 3,000 metres, rainfall is high, storms are frequent, winter temperatures are typically near freezing, and the cost of operating a rig in such an environment can run to $1m a day.
These are formidable challenges that may yet prove insuperable. Just as historical tragedy replays as farce, black gold often turns to fool's gold. Before doing anything silly, Kirchner's Argentina might be best advised to wait and see whether there is anything worth fighting over.