Small Wars Journal

30 Years On: The Diplomatic Fight for the Falkland Islands

Mon, 04/02/2012 - 5:57am


Beyond the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War, the UK must explore new ways of entrenching its political, diplomatic, economic and cultural ties throughout Latin America, if it is to counter Argentine attempts to internationalise the Falklands dispute and prevent further regional solidarity over Argentina’s claims to the Islands.


Tensions between the UK and Argentina have continued to intensify ahead of the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 Falklands conflict, as attempts by Argentina to step up its territorial claims to the Islands move beyond political rhetoric into more active efforts to exert influence over the Islanders and constrain the UK’s ability to promote British business in the region. Yet, while any form of military confrontation between the two countries is highly unlikely, Argentina’s recent success in internationalising the dispute and the potential impact this could have upon wider British interests in the region increasingly mean that the UK must now more than ever utilise other strands of national power to prevent this situation from continuing to escalate in the period ahead.

A ‘policy of confrontation’

Adopting what has been deemed by the British government as a ‘policy of confrontation’, recent efforts by Argentina to force the UK into negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands have increasingly included attempts to implement an economic blockade of the Islands, and to refuse the UK physical access to the region. For example, speaking earlier this month, Argentina’s Foreign Minister, Hector Timmerman, stated that Argentina will now pursue legal action against firms involved in oil exploration around the Falklands and that companies providing support to British prospectors could similarly face sanctions. This followed an announcement by Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, of her intentions to introduce three weekly flights to the Islands operated directly from Buenos Aires by Aerolinias Argentinas; a message which has raised concerns in the Falklands that Argentina might attempt to block the flights operated by Chilean airline LAN – currently the Islands’ only air link with South America. Other recent attempts by Argentina to marginalise the UK have included calls by Argentina’s Industry Minister, Debora Giorgi, to the CEOs of approximately twenty of Argentina’s top companies, urging them to replace British imports with goods produced elsewhere. Two Cruise Liners, the Adonia and the Star Princess, operated by British Companies were also refused access to the Argentine Port of Ushuaia last month; again following an announcement by Argentina's transport workers' union that it will now boycott ships flying the British flag.

Efforts to constrain the UK’s ability to operate within the region, have also been accompanied by repeated attempts by Argentina to internationalise the Falklands dispute and rally wider regional support for its foreign policy.  Recent examples include the announcement by Peru to cancel a scheduled visit of Britain’s HMS Montrose, due to dock at the El Callao naval base this week, a decision which Peruvian Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo claims was taken in ‘the spirit of Latin American solidarity’. At the beginning of February, Foreign Minister Timmerman also made an official complaint to the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council over perceived British militarisation in the South Atlantic.  Regional groupings to have unanimously backed Argentina’s position have included the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Organisation of American States (OAS), and Mercosur, a regional grouping which includes Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, who announced in December 2011 the symbolic decision to ban ships sailing under the Falkland Islands flag from docking at their ports.

Why Now?

Since President Kirchner came to office, UK-Argentinian relations have become characterised by an on-going war of words which reached new heights last summer when President Kirchner accused Britain of being a crude colonial power in decline, whose refusal to reopen negotiations over the Falklands bordered on ‘stupidity’. The Argentine position has subsequently begun to focus on what it perceives as an attempt by Britain to step up its military presence around the Islands.  While these claims, and the allegations that the UK has sent a nuclear-armed Vanguard-class submarine into Latin American waters, have been repeatedly denied in London, the recent deployment of Britain's Prince William to the Falklands - for RAF search and  rescue pilot training; the announcement that the UK's new Type 45 Destroyer HMS Dauntless will be sent to the region and the visit of British defence committee MP’s to the Falklands, have certainly fuelled the notion within Argentina that the UK is undergoing a programme of militarisation in the South Atlantic. Within Argentina, this argument has been further supported by accusations that Britain has taken Argentine resources from the Islands and the waters surrounding them. This is a sentiment which has been brought on as a result of increased UK oil exploration around the Falklands and the announcement in January by UK based company, Rockhopper Exploration, that it may have discovered significant oil reserves in the North Falklands Basin.

An alternative explanation for why the Kirchner administration has upped its efforts to bring Britain to the negotiating table, is that it is merely exploiting national grievances within Argentina to strengthen its own political position. By uniting her opposition and supporters alike over foreign policy President Kirchner is managing to divert attention away from less popular and unsuccessful aspects of her presidency, particularly in relation to domestic policy, where she is perhaps failing to deliver.  This could include planned austerity measures aimed at addressing Argentina’s failing economy and high inflation – the annual rate of which according some sources is believed to be at around 25 per cent, compared to official government statistics which put inflation figures at just under 10 per cent. This is hardly surprising given her track record of falsifying official government statistics. Other areas that she might want to divert attention from include the IMF’s recent withdrawal from Argentina; the President’s poor handling of the February Train Crash Disaster in Buenos Aires, and her inability to affectively address excessive level of corruption among Argentine police. Making the Falklands dispute the centre piece of Argentina’s current foreign policy could therefore be an intentional distraction tactic by President Kirchner aimed at enabling the consolidation of her own political power. 

President Kirchner is also perhaps guilty of perceiving the UK as a great power in decline; whose budgets across government are being slashed; whose military are overstretched; whose economy is failing; who are at risk of losing control over other territories closer to home – namely Scotland; whose position in Europe is becoming increasingly isolated; whose special relationship with the US is waning; and whose primary interest in holding onto the Falkland Islands is tied to oil and the possible route that it gives the UK into Antarctica in the period ahead. Given these assumptions about the perceived weakening of Britain’s ability to exert influence internationally, Argentina perhaps believes that the UK may buckle under repeated pressure and intimidation over the Falklands – something which would be viewed within Argentina as a major political victory for the Kirchner administration. Argentina has also perhaps been given a renewed confidence in this regard given that US support for the UK over the issue has not been openly forthcoming, not least because leading US politicians have on occasions referred to the Islands by their Argentine name ‘Las Malvinas’. 

Possible Future Scenarios

Against this backdrop, there are a number of possible scenarios which may be played out in the period ahead, which include the following: First, it is possible that once the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands conflict has passed, the Argentine government may become less vocal in its attempts to force Britain into negotiations as it moves instead in search of alternative, timelier, policies to unite its electorate.  This scenario could be further fuelled should a growing number of Argentinian’s lose support for their government’s current foreign policy posture towards the Falklands – a trend that was recently illustrated by a group of Argentine intellectuals who, challenging the government's ambition to take control of the Falkland Islands, urged the government to recognise the right of the Islanders to decide their own future. Nevertheless, in light of other rising domestic challenges currently facing Argentina, it’s potentially poor economic outlook, and the fact that both these factors are likely to see President Kirchner’s popularity level fall in the future, the Falklands issue looks like it is here to stay.

Second, tensions over the Falklands dispute may lead to military confrontation between the UK and Argentina.  This is by far the most unlikely of outcomes, not least because neither side has the political stomach for armed conflict, but also because the Islands are incredibly well defended by four Typhoon fighter jets, surface to air missiles, the regional presence of HMS Dauntless, and the surge capabilities provided by the Island’s Mount Pleasant airbase. Furthermore, while the UK’s military and intelligence capabilities have developed significantly since 1982, the same cannot be said of Argentina’s armed forces who may struggle to mount a successful attack on the Islands. The commonly asked question of whether or not the UK would be able to recapture the Falklands is therefore very much a non-debate.  In addition, Argentina has always placed emphasis upon trying to open peaceful negotiations with the UK; any form of military action on their part would therefore undermine its current claims to the Islands among its neighbours as it would ultimately be seen as the aggressor.

Third, Argentina will continue to push the issue and will gain further support from countries wishing to demonstrate hemispheric solidarity.  This could result in Britain being further denied a level of access within the region as Argentina becomes increasingly able to influence the way in which a number of Latin American countries interact with the UK in the future. This could affect the UK at a military and diplomatic level; and in terms of its trade relations and future regional investment opportunities. For example, by denying British military ships access to key Latin American ports, as happened in Uruguay in September 2010 when HMS Gloucester was prevented from docking in Montevideo; and January 2011, when HMS Clyde was refused permission to dock in Rio de Janeiro. Argentina could also further seek to end the last commercial aviation link between the Falklands and Chile.  As the region continues to support current integration efforts, the UK could therefore find itself becoming increasingly isolated at a time when it is trying to increase engagement throughout Latin America – a foreign policy objective reiterated by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague during his latest visit to Brazil.

Finally, while Argentina continues its efforts to internationalise the dispute it could increasingly lose the backing of regional partners over its territorial claims, rendering its efforts to isolate the UK from the region less effective. This scenario is possible given that, while the majority of Latin American counties pay lip-service to Argentina’s Falklands posture, there are mixed opinions throughout the region on the subject. In fact, while countries such as Venezuela might see the cause as an opportunity to make a stand against perceived colonialism, other countries such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru, are in reality perhaps less concerned with supporting Argentina’s claims and are instead playing a balancing act of trying to please two partners with whom they must ensure good relations are maintained. Countries such as these are therefore torn, on the one hand wanting to support the principles of self-determination and reject the measures that Argentina are taking against British companies and the restrictions that these are having on their own trade; while on the other seeing Argentina as an essential partner, wanting to support regional solidarity and being reluctant to criticise Argentina publically.

Entrenching Regional Ties

With the exception of the two month occupation by Argentina in 1982, the Falklands have been peacefully inhabited and administered under British sovereignty since 1833. Yet despite the UK’s persistence that the Islands should remain sovereign British territory for as long as the Falkland Islanders want to be British, limiting the damage that could be caused to the UK’s wider regional interests by Argentina’s current policy of confrontation requires the UK to strengthen its developing relations across Latin America and remind countries that putting up barriers to trade with the UK is not in the interest of either side. At present the UK is certainly not without clout in this regard, especially as Britain currently accounts for about 4 per cent of all foreign direct investment in Latin America and the Caribbean. This includes Britain being Chile’s second single largest foreign direct investor, and Colombia’s fourth single largest foreign direct investor – making it the joint-fourth largest investor within the region. Britain also has an important trading relationship with Argentina that must not be overlooked; last year Argentina exported goods worth $779 million to Britain, and imported goods worth $664 million.

As well as strengthening existing economic ties by continuing to nurture new UK-Latin American trade relations, such as the recent £133m BAE Systems naval contract in Brazil, the UK must also look to explore new ways of entrenching it’s political, diplomatic and cultural ties to the region. This is of course a process that is already well underway, most recently illustrated by UK Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne’s March visit to Latin America where he has participated in discussion on how UK expertise can support infrastructure development in Chile and Colombia, and the openings available in the green transport sector in Peru. This latest trip has also provided the UK with another chance to raise Britain’s Olympic profile ahead of the London 2012 Games, and is just one of a number of on-going efforts currently being made to strengthen the UK’s bilateral relations across the hemisphere. The UK is therefore already in a strong position to continue shaping its future relationship with Latin America, however, momentum, innovation and a more joined-up effort will have to be maintained in this regard; otherwise siding with Argentina over the Falklands debate may inevitably remain the most convenient diplomatic course of action to take within the region – something that would undoubtedly constrain Britain’s ability to develop existing partnerships and maximise possible future Latin American business opportunities, as well as other prospective regional interests. 

Categories: Falkland Islands - Britain

About the Author(s)


Matt Ince is Project Manager for International Studies at the London based defence and security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Matt holds an MA in Geopolitics and Grand Strategy and a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Sussex. Prior to working at RUSI, Matt worked for a British Member of Parliament.  Matt's research interests include counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and UK foreign, defence and security policy. Matt also has a regional interest in Latin America and the Caribbean and writes regularly for RUSI and the Small Wars Journal on these topics.