China is once again pressuring Argentina to build a naval base in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego province, which would mean opening the door to Antarctica for Beijing.
The military base would allow China to control the passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and monitor communications throughout the hemisphere, amounting to a clear and massive interference from the Asian country in international affairs, French news site Intelligence Online reported.
“A possible Chinese base in Ushuaia would allow Beijing to have a permanent enclave in the Southern Hemisphere, with projection toward the South Atlantic which, depending on the conditions negotiated with Argentina, could allow for the construction of facilities, as well as the presence of naval units and military contingents in this quadrant,” Alberto Rojas, director of the International Affairs Observatory at Chile’s Finis Terrae University, told Diálogo on November 28. “China could intercept all kinds of regional communications with a clear economic and strategic impact, in addition to gaining the potential to maintain permanent monitoring of maritime transit.”
Shuiping Tu, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official based in Argentina and a state-owned HydroChina Corp representative in South America, is leading the negotiations, Intelligence Online reported. Tu, the French news site added, reportedly persuaded Tierra del Fuego Governor Gustavo Melella to change his position on Chinese investment in the province.
In the geopolitical context, the presence of a Chinese base in South America could be interpreted as an important strategic move by Beijing. “The Belt and Road [BRI] project announced by China in 2013 seeks to have a clear projection toward this area of the continent,” Rojas said. “And if this base in Ushuaia materializes, it could become the first of many others, both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts or the Andean area.”
The BRI was touted as a “global infrastructure development and international cooperation strategy” to enable China’s involvement in infrastructure financing and construction to build a broad community of shared interests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. However, it actually seeks to increase Chinese dominance and control over developing countries, Rojas added.
A study by AidData, a research lab at the College of William & Mary’s Global Research Institute in Virginia, which analyzed 13,427 Chinese-backed projects in 165 countries over 18 years, worth $843 billion, sheds light on Beijing’s intentions. The study found that a growing number of Chinese-backed projects have been suspended or cancelled since the launch of the BRI, with evidence of “buyer’s remorse” in countries as far as Kazakhstan, Costa Rica, and Cameroon over concerns about corruption, labor violations, environmental pollution, and public protests, Reuters reported.
“A growing number of policymakers in low- and middle-income countries are mothballing high-profile BRI projects because of excessive pricing, corruption, and debt sustainability concerns,” said Brad Parks, one of the authors of the AidData study, told Reuters. Major shifts in public sentiment make it difficult for participating countries to maintain close relations with Beijing, Parks added.
China currently has three operational enclaves overseas, the best known being Djibouti in East Africa, which was born out of efforts to curb Somali pirates’ attacks against cargo ships moving through the Gulf of Aden. This gives China a strategic and permanent presence on the route connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
“There is also the Ream naval base, in Cambodia, where China has an important projection in the Southeast Asian area, and a high level of autonomy both in the base and its surroundings, to the point that it has already built a new port,” Rojas added. “And there is the base in Tadjikistan, under construction in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, which shares borders with China and Afghanistan, with which Beijing seeks to reinforce its presence in Central Asia.”
Added to these is the space station China has in Neuquén, Argentina. “I see it like this: They are facilities of an authoritarian government, which does not let Argentines access them, except if they go there to visit,” U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, told Infobae on April 27.
“What are they up to? They [China] don’t have the same concerns we do in terms of freedom and a free, secure, and prosperous Western Hemisphere,” Gen. Richardson concluded. “I’m concerned about it. And it’s run by a state-owned enterprise and the People’s Liberation Army. What are they using that facility for?”