China has been seeking to finance or build large infrastructure projects in Argentina to expand its influence in South America. A port, a nuclear power plant, a power station, and a radio telescope are among the projects announced. For experts, however, these works are cause for concern.
“Being ‘partners’ with China is a dangerous game,” Juan Belikow, professor of International Relations at the University of Buenos Aires, told Diálogo.
According to the expert, the risk is that China lends money to countries with economic difficulties knowing that they will not be able to pay. Thus, projects often have non-transparent contracts that can lead to loss of sovereignty or military use of scientific facilities. This has already happened with the Espacio Lejano Station, which giant 35-meter diameter antenna is operated by the Chinese military in the province of Neuquén, in Argentine Patagonia.
The antenna was installed in 2017, but the activities that Chinese officials carry out there are still unknown. “[The antenna] has scientific purposes, of that there is no doubt. What we have doubts about is that there is indeed a use that could interfere with the satellites of other powers, including our own satellites eventually, but also that it could be given a non-peaceful purpose,” Argentine Congressman Francisco Sánchez, from Neuquén, told Deutsche Welle en Español.
China is also taking part in the construction of the largest radio telescope in South America. This is the China Argentina Radio Telescope (CART), a 1,000-ton, 40-meter diameter structure that will be located at the El Leoncito Astronomical Complex in Argentina’s San Juan province, local daily Diario de Cuyo reported.
The National Academy of Sciences of China, the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, the National University of San Juan, and the San Juan government signed the CART memorandum of understanding in 2011.
The first CART parts began to arrive from China to the El Leoncito Astronomical Complex in August, Argentine newspaper Página 12 reported. The installation will require “the work of about 50 technicians, half of them Chinese, who will spend nearly a year living in [the town of] Barreal,” Diario de Cuyo reported.
Port and power plant
China also intends to build two large facilities in the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego: a port with a view to Antarctica and a power plant. Details of the memorandum between the Tierra del Fuego government and a Chinese state-owned company emerged in June.
“The document states that Shaanxi Chemical Group will invest $1.2 billion in the province for the construction of an industrial plant with an annual capacity of 600,000 tons of synthetic ammonia, 900,000 tons of urea, and 100,000 tons of glyphosate,” Argentine daily Clarín reported. “This will involve the construction of a multipurpose port terminal with internal enclosure, for the mooring of 20,000 ton vessels, that is to say a Chinese port in Argentina and a 100MW power plant,” Clarín added.
Belikow stressed that the port and the power plant have an important aspect: control of the bioceanic crossing. The other two bioceanic passage alternatives are the Panama Canal and the Arctic. “The Panama Canal can be sabotaged without major difficulties and is partially controlled by China, since the two ports at the ends of the canal are operated by Chinese companies, subsidiaries of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army],” Belikow said. “In turn, the Arctic becomes a very attractive alternative for international trade as the polar caps melt. But that is precisely why it is becoming a subject of political-military friction between the great powers that want to control it.”
According to Belikow, the port and the power plant that China wants to build in Tierra del Fuego have another meaning: “China’s projection over Antarctica in scientific, potentially economic, touristic, and, above all, sovereignty and military matters.”
Nuclear power plant
Beijing also seeks to finance the construction of Atucha III, which will be Argentina’s fourth nuclear power plant. In February 2022, the Argentine government announced a contract with Beijing for $8.3 billion for the construction of the plant. Argentina has since then been pushing for China to fully fund the project.
In August 2022, Jimena Latorre, lawmaker for the province of Mendoza and secretary of the Energy and Fuel Commission, expressed her concerns about the agreement. “[It is] financing, which is not the same as investment. Chinese financing with a repayment whose financial feasibility is not known,” Latorre told TN channel.
According to Latorre, the final cost for the nuclear power plant could reach $14 billion considering the developments that will fall onto Argentina and that are not accounted for in the contract. “It’s a closed, turnkey contract, which makes it difficult to transfer technology and know-how so that later [Atucha III] can be operated,” Latorre told TN.