Argentina finds itself immersed in at least seven challenges that threaten our security, the interests and principles of our nation. The majority of these challenges have a common denominator: the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, when reviewing the potential conflicts our country must face, the eastern dictatorship is present (directly or indirectly) in most cases. Although the Asian giant is Argentina’s main business partner (representing 12 percent of all Argentine exports and 22 percent of all imports), coupled with what is currently known as “Vaccine Diplomacy” (with regards to the Covid-19 pandemic), there are other threats that should heed pause and reflection, in order to truly grapple with the situation adequately and offer the solutions needed.
Military Bases in Patagonia
The first of these threats is a powerful antenna almost 16 stories high. It is found on a plot of land 200 hectares located in the city of Bajada del Agrio, in Neuquén Province. About 30 Chinese officials are currently operating it (operations will last for a period of 50 years). The station is managed by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (CLTC), which responds to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, the possibility that it is a part of (among other functions) the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile complex is disturbing (the ICBM is akin to a weapon of mass destruction). This also gives the antenna the ability to monitor both celestial bodies, as well as the location and trajectory of North American satellites (as well as satellites of other Western nations around the southern hemisphere), intercepting classified communications from other countries and even sending encrypted messages; although the Chinese regime declared that the station is exclusive for civil use. The agreement signed by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (and ratified by Mauricio Macri) indicates that reconnaissance tasks cannot be carried out, which makes this a violation of constitutional principles. It also violates previous agreements signed with allied countries. This situation creates the need to review the agreement and establish control measures that sate the affected parties.
The Bajada del Agrio facility is not the only one in the country. Indeed, since 2015 the China-Argentina Radio Telescope (CART) project has been operating in the town of “El Leoncito” (Calingasta, San Juan Province) via the agreement signed in 2014 between the National University of San Juan (UNSJ) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. With functions perhaps complementary to that of Neuquén Province, it is the second of its kind in the country and the largest telescope in South America. A radio telescope is a telescope, which instead of looking through the visual field, receives electromagnetic radiation within the spectrum of radio waves. If the existence of these two establishments is worrying, it pains to say that a third installation is underway, this one in Santa Cruz Province. This has been announced as an “Aerospace technology project for Río Gallegos", which aims to build and implement a station in the Industrial Park of the city of Rio Gallegos. The installation will house four to six satellite antennas. The developer tasked with the project is a Chinese company called Beijing Aerospace Satelliteherd (SATHD); these details should indicate how this story is likely to unfold.
Every year for the past several decades, a fleet of about 450 vessels travels our territory’s sea, engaging in illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing around nautical mile 200. Illegal fishing refers to fishing "carried out by national or foreign vessels in waters under the jurisdiction of a State, without its permission or in contravention of its legislation,” as happens every time a foreign vessel crosses the Argentine Sea and passes nautical milepost 199. Unreported fishing such as that which occurs when a vessel carries out the activity without declaring it to the competent national authority, in violation of national legislation. Unregulated fishing is carried out in areas at or around fish stock for which there are no applicable conservation or management measures. Our sea is ambushed every year by vessels from China (45 percent), South Korea (20 percent), Taiwan (20 percent) and Spain (15 percent) waiting to cross the 200-mile limit and fish illegally in sovereign maritime territory. Twenty percent of the boats turn off their Automatic Identification System. The AIS, through radio waves, transmits the position of the boat. Use of the AIS is mandatory – turning it off begets not being identified; there have been 550 of such cases recollected over the last year. The vast majority of these boats are jiggers – boats that use selective fishing gear and normally fish at night. Schools of fish are rounded up at night through lighting from strong deck lamps. These schools are destined for squid fishing. After shrimp and Hubbsi hake, the Illex squid is the third-largest product exported by Argentina, its main destination markets being Spain, China and Thailand.
The Chinese fishing fleet (which represents half of the vessels operating in the area) begins its predatory course in Ecuador, continuing through Peru and Chile to our waters. It has at least eight resupply vessels and as many general support vessels, and oftentimes is accompanied by an armed escort, as was the case in the Gulf of Aden with the Weifang (Hull ID 550), a guided-missile frigate of the 33rd naval escort task force of the CCP.
The presence of the Argentine Navy is limited by budgetary and technologic constraints. The only consolation prize is its satellite tracking capabilities, which enables it to monitor the ships that operate in our waters. When these ships are intercepted, the sanction is of an administrative nature, ranging from 500 thousand litres to three million litres of diesel, according to the severity of the crime. The value of this “sanction” ranges between a floor and ceiling of 25 and 150 million pesos respectively, meaning that this activity doesn’t really constitute a crime in practice. It should also be noted that violations of the onboard personnel’s human rights have been reported.
A 2018 report from the Healthy Oceans campaign of the Cetacean Conservation (OCC) describes situations of slave labour, trafficking and death in the South Atlantic. Among the cases exposed, a 2014 incident stands out, in which 28 crew members of African origin disembarked in Montevideo, Uruguay from a Chinese ship and reported physical and psychological abuse. The men had shackle marks on their ankles.
This portrayal of depredation and violation of human rights adds to the passivity of our government, which through attitudes such as President Alberto Fernández's statements further complicate the picture. Two of such statements were made regarding the presence of USS Greeneville (SSN 772) in international waters near Malvinas Islands, and the rejection of the USS Stone (a ship of the US Coast Guard, which could have mitigated illegal fishing efforts). Indeed, the fight against this menace will only be possible through an agreement with the United Kingdom and Uruguay in first instance; in a later instance, joining other affected nations to prevent the looting of our marine coastline.
The name 5G corresponds to the acronym used to refer to the fifth generation of mobile phone technologies. It succeeds 4G technologies and provides bandwidths of up to 10 Gbps (10 to 100 times higher than currently), a 90 percent reduction in energy consumption and up to 100 connected devices per unit area, among other things. Due to the aforementioned improvements, it is projected that 5G networks will not only be used by hand-held devices (as is the case with current telephone networks), but will also be used more broadly in desktop or laptop computers. For this very reason, new uses are expected in areas such as Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine-to-Machine (M2M). 4G cell phones will not support new networks, which will need support for 5G. Global commercial competition, cybersecurity and personal data safeguarding are central to the worldwide 5G agenda, and more so in our country. Specialists sustain that 5G will not only be a means for gathering intelligence, but also one of the fields of cyberwarfare (that is, attacks carried out at a distance against the critical infrastructure of nations and companies).
In this context, China renewed the US$8.5-billion swap that expired on July 17 of this year and was operational since December 2015. The renewed agreement will allow the Central Bank to maintain its level of gross reserves to be used in case of emergency, but this clearly comes at a price. Indeed, the Asian power has an explicit interest in Huawei being the lead provider in the deployment of the next generation of telecom technologies in Argentina. President Fernández has not yet ruled out Huawei competing in the country's tenders, and Huawei has already won a key tender authorized by ARSAT. Sino-Argentine flirtation over 5G networks goes against the decision of western powers. The list of countries that have joined the US veto on Huawei (at least partially) is lengthy. Among them – the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France and the list goes on. At this point, it is necessary for Argentina to join the aforementioned countries in safeguarding the interests of national security.
The Argentine Waterway
The Paraná-Paraguay waterway is a river system that runs longitudinally from Puerto Cáceres (Mato Grosso, Brazil) up north, to Nueva Palmira (Colonia, Uruguay) down south, with numerous tributaries. It covers five countries: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay (it is a valuable outlet to the sea for the latter two). It spans more than 3442 km of coastline and an area of almost 1.75 million square km, and is one of the systems of greater global relevance, which earned it the designation of "the Mississippi of South America." The city of Santa Fe is one of the most important in our country and is located in the heart of this formidable river highway. Another capital city, such as Paraná (only 30 km away), and a manufacturing city such as Rafaela (125 km away), integrate a region of almost one million inhabitants and a very important number of industries. This superhighway contains more than 90 Argentine ports, through which the grains and agro-industrial derivatives of Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Mato Grosso circulate. On the past April 30, the Paraná-Paraguay Waterway concession was extended for 90 days. In this manner, the concessionaire company Hidrovía SA (made up of the Belgian group Jan de Nul and the Argentine holding company Emepa SA) will continue to lead "modernization, expansion, signaling, dredging and redrawing tasks." The private concessionaire performs the services entrusted by the State and in return levies the cargo transport ships that navigate the waterways.
Cargill, Bunge, Archer Daniels Midland, Louis Dreyfus (four of the largest grain traders in the world) and American Commercial Lines (ACL) International (a holding company that’s a key player on the Mississippi river), would appear to be linked to regional projects. In this case, the projects undertaken to convert rivers into industrial channels through their investments on the coast of the Paraguay or Paraná rivers (or both). Currently, what is relevant is that China wants to enter this business: the Asian power has now decided to go after this key artery of the soybean complex. The Chinese have been pledging major investments to the Government since Alberto Fernández began his mandate; the Asian country alludes to contributions upwards of US$30 billion. These capital injections would be key for the dominance of domestic lithium reserves, increased demand for meat, as well as negotiations to establish pork farms in different parts of the country. It should also be noted that this waterway is key for the prevention of cocaine, marijuana and rare metal (semi-conductor supply) smuggling, which has increased considerably as of late.
The government's stance in relation to the narco-terrorist dictatorship of Venezuela reached absurd levels during the administration of President Alberto Fernández. He maintains a close relationship with Nicolás Maduro Moros, whom associates with Diosdado Cabello (the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly) as leaders of the infamous "Cartel de los Soles." Both such members of the Venezuelan regime have an international arrest warrant and reward on them, as well as other lieutenants. The Argentine departure from the Lima Group, added to its withdrawn support of the lawsuit presented before the International Criminal Court in The Hague (just days before Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda confirmed that she is close to presenting her findings on the Chavista dictatorship) aggravates an incoherent and dangerous alignment with drug-trafficking, terrorism and other non-democratic powers.
The Venezuelan State barely controls 35 percent of its sovereign territory; the rest is in hands of different criminal organisations, as well as Russian and Cuban soldiers. Chinese, Russian and Turkish companies reflect this international tampering in the exploitation of Venezuelan mines. Indeed, the South American country has been invaded and its status as a failed state consolidated. The diaspora of approximately six million people reflects the humanitarian crisis, but also speaks of the possible impact of activities related to drug trafficking and regional terrorism. This great exodus is the spore for the installation of subversive bases throughout the American continent. This has been well documented – on one hand; the Hezbollah organization has given explicit support to Tareck El Aissami. On the other, it has been proven that the Venezuelan Embassy in Iraq has sold diplomatic passports to criminals. This, added to other events (the Iranian departure of ships bound for Caracas loaded with military boats would further agitate the instability of the region.
The North Shield
The "Escudo Norte" ("North Shield") is the name of the Argentine military operation whose main task is to combat drug-trafficking, human-trafficking and smuggling in northern Argentina. The aim of the program is to control air, land and river spaces in the provinces of the northern region. The security and armed forces employ planes, helicopters and radars as part of the program. It was constituted in 2011, in coordination with “Operation Fortin” (enacted in 2007) by the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration and expanded during the Mauricio Macri administration. In January 2016, the Argentine Air Force was encouraged to intimidate, warn and shoot down narco airplanes if necessary.
In practice, this operation had few effective results in increasing control of the northern border. The lack of resources revealed the inability of our Armed and Security Forces to control the porosity of the limits of our territory. The scarce quantity of operational airplanes and radars forced us to imagine new regional and continental agreements to acquire weapons systems. It also forces us take advantage of the benefits of being Extra-NATO Allies of the United States, among other challenges. Likewise, it demands us to rethink our relationship with the United Kingdom, an actor that has vetoed the Argentine acquisition of FA-50 aircraft of Korean origin, due to the embargo on our country.
The Antarctic Campaign
Argentina has carried out the “Campaña Antártica de Verano” ("Summer Antarctic Campaign"), uninterrupted since 1947. During the campaign, the personnel who hole up in Antarctica are relieved, supplies are provided to the bases and research and observation tasks are carried out. The 2020/2021 campaign lasted 140 days and provided support to the bases with their scientific tasks, replacing the equipment and supplies of the six permanent facilities (Marambio, Esperanza, Carlini, Orcadas, Belgrano and San Martín). Our country has the largest number of permanent installations on the continent (six), followed by Chile and Russia (five), the United States and Australia (three), Germany, China, South Korea, India and the United Kingdom (two), Brazil , France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Ukraine and Uruguay (one). Indeed, we can affirm that the tasks in the white continent are one of the few activities in which our country has a consistent governmental policy. However, there are threats that as a country we cannot neglect.
During the last two decades, the People's Republic of China has ramped up its activity both in the Arctic Circle and in Antarctica. Of the two permanent Chinese bases on the continent, the so-called "Great Wall" is located in the south of the Fildes peninsula, in the western part of King George Island. The CCP opened four research bases – these are Great Wall, Zhongshan, Kunlun and Taishan. They have also established the China Polar Research Institute in Shanghai, in addition to launching the icebreaker Xuelong-2 (Snow Dragon). Indeed, Chinese bases are within Argentine territory. This territory is also part of the government of the Tierra del Fuego province. The presence of China is found in a geographical point also claimed by the United Kingdom and Chile. This exhorts us to work together with our neighbours and the British in the face of the challenge posed by the activity of the Chinese.
In conclusion, the Covid-19 epidemic and the global economic crisis should not make us forget that there are other threats that put the security and future of our country at risk. We must be alert to the presence of these threats, especially when considering an actor of great relevance such as the People's Republic of China.
Nazareno Etchepare is an attorney and political analyst in Argentina