New Falk­lands war seems un­likely but a cri­sis could serve po­lit­i­cal needs

Cape Breton Post - - COMMENT - 1wynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is a Lon­don-based in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Jorge Luis Borges, Ar­gentina’s finest writer, dis­missed the Falk­lands War of 1982 as “two bald men fight­ing over a comb.” But it killed al­most a thou­sand Bri­tish and Ar­gen­tine sol­diers, sailors and air­men any­way. So what would hap­pen if the bald men started fight­ing over some­thing re­ally valu­able, like oil?

Any day now a deep-sea drilling rig will ar­rive from Scot­land and start search­ing for oil and gas in the North Falk­land basin, about 150 kilo­me­tres north of the is­lands. Op­ti­mistic pre­dic­tions sug­gest that there are up to 60 bil­lion bar­rels of oil to be found around the Falk­lands. There might also be not very much at all, but Ar­gentina has be­gun is­su­ing warn­ings and veiled threats again.

This may only be blus­ter but Ar­gentina has claimed the is­lands, which it calls the Is­las Malv­inas, for al­most two cen­turies. The lo­cal pop­u­la­tion are all English speak­ers, mainly of Bri­tish de­scent, and back in 1982 the is­lands’ econ­omy was based al­most en­tirely on sheep. The Falk­lands had no value but Ar­gentina in­vaded any­way be­cause the mil­i­tary regime in Buenos Aires needed a boost in pop­u­lar­ity and it looked like an easy win.

It should have been an easy victory for the mil­i­tary junta be­cause the is­lands are only 500 km from Ar­gentina and they are 13,000 km from Bri­tain. More­over, Bri­tain had sub­stan­tially cut its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the re­gion, which sug­gested to the Ar­gen­tine gen­er­als that it wasn’t re­ally com­mit­ted to the is­lands’ de­fence.

The Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice wasn’t (and the for­eign sec­re­tary of the time had to re­sign be­cause of his ne­glect) but prime min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher cer­tainly was. She sent a Bri­tish task force to take the is­lands back, fought a two-month war at the end of an im­pos­si­bly long sup­ply line, and won. That seemed, for a time, to have set­tled mat­ters.

Mean­while, the pre­vi­ously im­pov­er­ished is­lan­ders grew pros­per­ous by sell­ing li­cences to ex­ploit the rich fish­ing re­sources in the is­lands’ ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters. Oil drilling got un­der­way in 1998 but stopped again when the world oil price dropped be­low $10 per bar­rel. (Seabed oil is ex­pen­sive oil.) The pop­u­la­tion grew by 50 per cent, to the present to­tal of 3,000. And all seemed well.

Things started to look wor­ri­some again in 2007 when Ar­gentina’s then pres­i­dent, Nestor Kirch­ner, uni­lat­er­ally can­celled an agree­ment with the United King­dom to share the ex­ploita­tion of off­shore re­sources, in­clud­ing pos­si­ble oil re­serves. It would have pre­vented the cur­rent dis­pute from aris­ing but the po­lit­i­cal value of the Malv­inas claim in Ar­gentina is greater than the po­ten­tial eco­nomic value of oil from the seas around the Falk­lands.

In re­sponse to the ap­proach of the drilling rig, Pres­i­dent Cristina Kirch­ner (the hus­band-and-wife team takes turns in the pres­i­dency) de­creed that all ves­sels travel- ling be­tween Ar­gentina and the Falk­lands, or those want­ing to cross Ar­gen­tine ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters en route to the is­lands, must seek prior per­mis­sion. Un­for­tu­nately, no­body knows ex­actly what that means.

Since Buenos Aires in­sists that all the seas around the Falk­lands be­long to Ar­gentina, it could amount to a block­ade of the Falk­lands. Her chef de cab­i­net, Ani­bal Fer­nan­dez, said the de­cree sought to achieve “not only a de­fence of Ar­gen­tine sovereignty but also of all the re­sources” in the area, and deputy for­eign min­is­ter Vic­to­rio Tac­cetti said his coun­try would take “ad­e­quate mea­sures” to stop oil ex­plo­ration.

On the other hand, Bri­tain now keeps a thou­sand troops plus strike air­craft and war­ships in the once de­fence­less Falk­land Is­lands. An Ar­gen­tine at­tack on the drilling plat­form would not be easy and an­other in­va­sion is al­most im­pos­si­ble. Nev­er­the­less, William Hague, for­mer leader of the Con­ser­va­tive party, who is likely to be the Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary af­ter the May elec­tion, is urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to rein- force the Falk­lands now.

“One of the things that went wrong in the 1980s is that the Ar­gen­tines thought we weren’t re­ally com­mit­ted to the Falk­land Is­lands,” warned Hague. “So, we mustn’t make that mis­take again. Our com­mit­ment should be very clear.”

Maybe this is all merely a pan­tomime but it’s not just a quar­rel about a comb. It’s not re­ally about po­ten­tial oil re­sources, ei­ther. If it were, Nestor Kirch­ner would never have can­celled the Ar­gentina-UK agree­ment on shar­ing the off­shore re­sources. It’s about hold­ing power in Buenos Aires.

That was what re­ally mo­ti­vated the junta’s in­va­sion of the Falk­lands in 1982. There is an elec­tion due in Ar­gentina next year and one of the Kirch­n­ers is likely to run again. An­other lost war would not be po­lit­i­cally help­ful but a cri­sis could be very use­ful. We may be hear­ing more from the South At­lantic.

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