A multipurpose port project in Río Grande, Argentina set to be built with funds from a Chinese company has sparked controversy due to global conflict risks, EFE news agency reported.
Río Grande is a city located on the northeast coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, in the Argentine Sea, with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean and passage to Antarctica.
“Evidently there is Chinese interest in developing its fishing fleet strategy in the South Atlantic because of the riches of the sea, where illegal fishing is critical and severe,” Sergio Cesarín, coordinator of the Center for Asia-Pacific and India Studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero, in Argentina, told Diálogo on February 5. “China is also projecting its Antarctic strategy, since it has at least four bases on the white continent.”
However, the Argentine government said its construction was not feasible, sources from Argentina’s Ports and Waterways told Argentine news site Infobae.
The controversy arose after it was reported that the governor of Tierra del Fuego, Gustavo Melella, had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese state-owned company Shaanxi Chemical Industry Group, to build a port in Río Grande.
“In spite of the back and forth, that the construction of a port had been announced, and later versions that it would not materialize, there is no doubt that China’s presence and pressure in southern Argentina is a very serious problem, especially with ships that carry out illegal fishing,” Fabián Calle, political analyst and professor of International Relations at Argentina’s Austral University, told Diálogo on February 2.
“For a long time now the Chinese fleet navigation in the South Atlantic area has been growing exponentially,” Calle added. “In 2022, 800 Chinese fishing vessels arrived from the Pacific to fish illegally.”
According to the memorandum that Melella signed on December 7, in addition to the multipurpose port terminal, the Chinese company is committed to the construction of a chemical plant with an annual production capacity of 600,000 tons of synthetic ammonia, 900,000 tons of urea, and 100,000 tons of glyphosate.
More than this production, Infobae reported, what interests China most is having its own port in the southernmost region of the planet, which in the near future could become a gateway to Antarctica.
“There is a constant element when China finances infrastructure works, the clauses of the contracts say that the counter-guarantees of payments for these works are the works themselves, and this is how China gets ports and other infrastructure,” Luis Somoza, an intelligence expert and former professor of the Argentine Armed Forces’ War College, told Diálogo on February 4.
Currently, China operates four stations in Antarctica, including two permanent stations (Great Wall Station and Zhongshan Station), and two summer stations (Kunlun Station and Taishan Station).
“For more than 15 years the Chinese have been carrying out strategic studies to have a strong presence in Antarctica. Hence the interest in building a port in Tierra del Fuego,” Cesarín said. “China’s sights on the South Atlantic, which they call the Blue Ocean, is aimed at having a plan with fishing, Antarctica, and bio-ceanic corridors.”
According to a late 2022 report by U.S. think tank Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), the number of Chinese-owned or controlled ports has increased considerably.
Some 40 ports in Latin America from Peru to Mexico, combined with 11 satellite ground stations in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela, give China a strategic location in the Western Hemisphere, SFS said.
“We have to keep in mind that in a very few years the Antarctic Treaty will be modifiable and there will be sovereignty claims. With China having a gateway to Antarctica from this port, it will obviously give China the possibility of claiming a territorial space on the white continent, and that will affect the security of our hemisphere,” Somoza concluded.