China began assembling the antenna of the China-Argentina Radio Telescope (CART) at the El Leoncito Astronomical Complex in Argentina’s San Juan province on November 23, 2023, generating concerns among experts despite its importance as the largest radio telescope in South America.
With 20 percent progress, the radio telescope, which will have a 40-meter diameter dish, is projected to be completed by May 2024 and fully operational by the end of the year, reported daily Diario de Cuyo, based in San Juan, Argentina.
“China seeks to expand its global surveillance reach to monitor the activities of the United States and NATO countries. This objective is replicated in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela,” Euclides Tapia, a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Panama, told Diálogo. “The radio telescope is not focused on exploring the moon, but quite a bit further down.”
The CART project, led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in collaboration with the National University of San Juan (UNSJ) and the provincial government, aims to expand research in astronomy and in areas such as geodesy, astrophysics, and georeferencing, Diario de Cuyo reported.
The Chinese agencies involved in the Sino-Argentine project have direct links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which raises the possibility of military use, noted the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), a Swedish-based international think tank.
CART could be connected to FAST, the planet’s largest radio telescope, 500 meters in diameter, in Guizhou, China, the Swedish organization said. For the Xi Jinping government, Argentina stands out for its strategic location, the characters of its leaders, and for coinciding in its expansion of economic and military power.
“China takes advantage of the technological lag in Latin American countries, as in the case of Argentina, to obtain benefits that align with its national interests,” Tapia said. “Latin America is unaware of the real implications and objectives of the investments and projects that Beijing is carrying out in the region.”
Since June 2023, more than 30 Chinese scientists and technicians have contributed to the construction of the radio telescope, with a projected investment of $40 million, according to news site News ArgenChina and a report by the UNSJ.
ISDP notes that current regulations limit Argentina’s sovereignty over Chinese activities in its territory, a situation common in other agreements. Buenos Aires daily Tribuna reported that as with the Espacio Lejano station in Argentina’s Neuquén province, CART is under Chinese military control. “There is no Chinese civilian facility that does not have a dual use,” Tapia added.
Espacio Lejano allocates only 10 percent of its time to Argentine scientists. The Argentine government does not “interfere or interrupt” China’s activities at the Neuquén station, which uses three bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, two of them for official purposes, including military applications, Spanish magazine Política Exterior reported.
Africanization and security
Chinese interests are evolving into strategic projects in Argentina, ranging from airspace control to strategic installations in territorial areas. ISDP notes a concentration of investments and infrastructure initiatives in key areas such as Neuquén, Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and South Atlantic islands) and San Juan.
According to ISDP, in 2014 the first project between the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (under the PLA) and Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities (CONAE) was initiated. Espacio Lejano, the Chinese base was established at Bajada del Agrio and inaugurated in 2017. The facility has an antenna weighing 110 tons and 35 meters in diameter.
The second Chinese project involves the construction of a multifunctional port in Tierra del Fuego, near Argentina’s Antarctica. China has lobbied national and local authorities for its rapid construction. This project, valued at $300 million, reflects the trend of Chinese investments in Latin America: millionaire sums without considering environmental and geopolitical impacts, ISDP reported.
Chinese expansion in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is an evolving process that deserves close monitoring, says ISDP.
“Argentina has a growing dependence on China, where the economic implications have trapped the country in a relationship that is difficult to break,” Tapia said. “This is part of China’s strategy to establish a core of influence in the region, generating concerns about a possible ‘Africanization.’”
China’s presence raises concerns about controlling communications in the event of conflict, which could challenge hemispheric security, Tapia said. “The fact that China does not form and does not want to be part of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance raises questions about guarantees in crisis situations.”
According to ISDP, an increased Chinese presence in Argentina is anticipated due to its strategic location, natural resources, and remoteness from conflict zones. China seems to be focused on controlling crucial logistical areas, rather than seeking economic prosperity in the southern hemisphere, the organization said.
“The Argentine government must maintain its independence from China and Russia to avoid possible economic pressures, such as those exerted by Beijing in Sri Lanka, where it gained control over a port. It is vital to avoid dependence and maintain national sovereignty, as China seeks to exert control over Argentina,” Tapia concluded.