Analysts: Argentina F-16, naval base decisions halt China’s momentum

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International affairs analysts see a foreign policy shift with far-reaching repercussions for the U.S. and China in Argentina’s decision this week to buy American-made F-16 fighter jets and its early April announcement to partner with the U.S. military on a naval base at the southern tip of South America.
Argentina’s decision to purchase 24 F-16s from Denmark rather than go with a competing bid from China led some Chinese commentators to lament the setback. Beijing has been trying for more than a decade to sell Argentina JF-17 fighter jets China developed with Pakistan.
The choice was “somewhat inevitable” given the pro-freedom, anti-communist position of recently elected Argentine President Javier Milei, said London-based Argentina specialist Christopher Ecclestone.
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, said that until Milei took office, Argentina appeared to be on a path that was heading to increasingly deeper political, economic and military cooperation with Beijing – a path that threatened U.S. interests in the region and beyond.
Had China succeeded in selling its jets to Argentina, as well as other weapons including armored vehicles, it would have gained entry into the country’s defense and security infrastructure, Fisher said, adding that “other Latin American countries would have been encouraged to follow in its footsteps.”
Strait of Magellan
Analysts said Milei’s decision to partner with the U.S. more broadly, including on a naval base near the Strait of Magellan, was equally important. China’s persistent efforts to partner with Argentina on development of the base had been widely reported.
In a speech earlier this month, Milei said Argentina would coordinate closely with the United States on the development of the Ushuaia naval base.
Milei’s remarks were made after he flew from Buenos Aires to meet U.S. Army four-star General Laura Richardson in Ushuaia. Her visit to Argentina this month was her third since taking the helm at the U.S. Southern Command in October 2021.
“General Laura Richardson’s visit to Ushuaia and Milei’s trip there to hold a joint press conference was in itself a dramatic turn in Argentine foreign policy,” Fisher told VOA.
Fisher said Milei’s actions since coming to office have reversed “the momentum communist China has built up in Latin America,” and he called it a pushback against Beijing’s global hegemonic ambition.
The importance of the naval base in Ushuaia has everything to do with its location, experts say. It faces the Strait of Magellan and Antarctica further south, making it as strategically important as the Panama Canal.
Had China secured control of the Strait of Magellan, it could potentially prevent the U.S. Navy from transiting military forces between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, Fisher said.
Instead, “Argentina making common cause with the U.S. at the bottom end of LatAm effectively blocks China’s access to South Atlantic from the Western side,” Ecclestone noted in a message posted on LinkedIn.
US response
In a sign that the United States is focusing greater attention on Latin America after years of watching China make inroads south of its border, Richardson detailed other U.S. arms transfers and investments that are planned or under way.
In addition to the F-16 fighters and a C-130 Hercules transport plane that the U.S. gifted Argentina following an 11-month lease, she told Argentine media that 250 Stryker armored vehicles were on the horizon. Construction of a plant in Argentina for the maintenance of the Strykers has also been discussed, Richardson said.
Other equipment that could help Argentina with maritime patrols, including P-3 surveillance planes and King Air aircraft, are also on the list, she said.
Richardson also disclosed that the U.S. was about to finish building an emergency operation center in Argentina’s western Neuquen province, where Beijing has been operating a deep-space station since 2018.
Experts say the station functions like a Chinese overseas military base and is closely linked to electronic and space warfare, including tracking and surveillance, a charge China denies.
“Next we’re about to install computers, screens and other IT stuff,” Richardson said in an interview with Infobae, the most visited news website in Argentina.
Asked about China’s inroads in Latin American countries’ 5G networks, Richardson urged countries to reflect on the nature of a communist government. “If they don’t treat their own people with respect, what makes us think they will treat our people with respect?”
She also pointed out that all state-owned enterprises dispatched abroad and engaged in strategic projects are required by laws dictated by the Chinese government to serve the interests and needs of the ruling Communist Party.
The Pentagon has also approved funding for a seven-year program – the Theater Maintenance Partnership Initiative – aimed at helping nations maintain whatever equipment they buy from the U.S., Richardson said in the interview.
Richardson said she didn’t see why countries in Latin America couldn’t rise to meet NATO standards for running and operating defense equipment. The United States is committed to partnering with the nearly 30 nations south of its border to strengthen their capabilities, she said.
On that front, Buenos Aires is all in. On Thursday, Argentina sent a letter of intent to NATO requesting to become one of the organization’s global partners.
In another sign of reciprocity, the U.S. Embassy in Argentina announced Thursday that Washington was providing Argentina with $40 million toward its purchase of the F-16s.
“This is the first time Argentina has received U.S. FMF [foreign military financing] since 2003,” according to the embassy’s press release.

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