China seems to be succeeding in establishing a military base in Argentina at Ushuaia. “This will not only give China greater access to the Antarctic which is an essential element of its Polar strategy with five research stations already established there but also give it a military foothold in the South Atlantic to further it’s Atlantic strategy,” Commodore Anil Jai Singh, Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation.
The former submariner and Indian Navy veteran says, “Argentina, perhaps looking to get Chinese investment has more or less acquiesced to the Chinese in this regard. However, the Chinese presence in that country is not just about this base and a military presence in the country. Earlier reports had indicated that a Chinese military base is also being set up in Equatorial Guinea, perhaps in Bata, on the west coast of Africa, which would help China consolidate its military presence in the Atlantic Ocean.”
When seen in conjunction with the space station it has established in the Argentinian region of Patagonia, it is obvious that the Chinese presence is multi dimensional and part of its larger strategic design. Contrary to the assurances given to the Argentinian government that the station is being set up for civilian purposes and access would be given to the Argentinian government, the 16 storey high antenna tower and the 8 ft high perimeter wall ensures the opacity of the facility. “Not only has China restricted access except by invitation, but the terms and conditions of the 50 year lease indicate that it is almost Chinese sovereign territory for that period,” explains Commodore Anil Jai Singh.
According to the former navy officer the Chinese space agency is under the PLA and therefore, its intention is clearly military in nature unlike the European Space Agency facility close by which is under civilian control. Hence China’s expanding footprint in the region across the space and maritime domain is cause for concern.
Should India be concerned?
Yes. “India too seems to have woken up to the region. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar’s recent visit included discussions on energy and defence cooperation. The India-Argentine relationship has always been cordial – the relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership in 2019 but tangible strategic outcomes are yet to be seen,” he observes.
In his view, India’s engagement with that entire region needs to be stepped up. With both countries being members of the G20, India’s presidency provides the opportunity. “While India is not in direct competition with China in the South Atlantic, we too are looking to be in the big league which would require a global outlook – the Antarctic is important to India as is outer space. It should therefore be our endeavour to not concede the first mover advantage to China wherever our interests could be affected,” he states.