British Imperialism in the South Atlantic: Malvinas and Antarctica

British Imperialism in the South Atlantic: Malvinas and Antarctica

The Malvinas Islands consists of an Argentine territory illegally occupied by British imperialism. It has a high geopolitical value in terms of the deployment in the South Atlantic region. Together with the South Sandwich and South Georgia Islands (also illegally occupied), in the southwestern Atlantic Ocean, they formed the scene of the Malvinas War in 1982 against Argentina. Since 1985, the UK has established there a real military fortress, unfurling an interconnection system with London to guarantee the security and viability of these overseas colonies (protection + logistics).

The South Atlantic area consists of a strategic area, due to its geographical position. It bears a very rich biodiversity, fresh water and hydrocarbons. But the island’s is important above all because it´s a privileged setting for the advance of capitalism over Antarctica. With a systemic crisis on the horizon, this becomes even more valuable.

Argentina is not giving the necessary responses. Unlike the UK, it seems to have no plan of action. Meanwhile, as part of Brexit, in the framework of the global crisis, imperialist genetics seem to gain ground while the UK responds flexing the military muscle. They propose the consolidation of their colonial dominions and attach themselves to the United States’ Asian Pivot maneuver. Hence, Biden will surely respect the British colonial mandate. Let’s look at some elements of this scheme that makes up true 21st century colonialism.

Argentine Malvinas

Malvinas are the most important islands in the region. They are part of the Argentine national territory, linked by the common continental platform, as recognized by the UN. They are located 500 km from the Argentine coast and 14,000 km from London. On April 2, 1982, Argentinian forces invaded and regained control over the Islands. The UK reacted by sending a Task Force and imposing a naval and air blockade on the large Argentinian military base. Argentina surrendered on June 14 of that same year; 648 Argentines and 255 British died. Before the war, the UK controlled the islands and a total area of 15,000 km2. After the war, they came to control an area of almost 2 million km2.

In 1985, the UK installed the Mount Pleasant Complex, the most powerful military base in the South Atlantic and one of the most powerful in the world. It´s staffed by personnel from all three services where they live along with their families, and constitute a thriving community with its own rights and legality.

The complex has an airfield for planes of any size. The Royal Air Force provides a permanent air bridge to the UK and other parts of the world. The Royal Navy currently has the HMS Forth as the main permanent presence on the islands. At various times they have had nuclear submarines patrolling the area. All three forces work jointly, providing reassurance to locals, visiting inhabitants of the outlying islands, supporting every facet of the daily life of society.

Mount Pleasant has a radar system, surface-to-air Rapier missiles, an ocean patrol boat, a logistics tanker, a polar ship, a squadron of Eurofighters Typhoon, two heavy lift helicopters, one an in-flight refueling unit and a tactical airlift aircraft.

The island’s population is around 3,500 islanders and it´s is integrated with, and depends on, the mandate of the British Crown through the military presence, witch according to different records, may be as many as 3,000 people.

Military exercises are carried out periodically. On December 16, 2020, for five days civilians received training in sniper shooting, use of machine guns, close combat, and the formation of a logistical and amphibious support units, where we, Argentines, are the hypothesis of conflict. More recently in a military exercise held on January 6, 2021, the RAPIER anti-aircraft missile system was used, and deployment tactics were carried out on the ground.

Malvinas is the cornerstone for the UK´s aspirations for the South Atlantic region. The Global Britain report makes it clear that the UK will continue to defend their conquered sovereignty over the islands, and that the armed forces will retain a deterrent posture in Malvinas.

All of this was later confirmed by the “Defense in a competitive age” report presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Defense by Command of Her Majesty a few days after Global Britain report came out.

Key elements of the imperial network

Other highlights of the really existing British imperial scheme are Gibraltar, where British armed forces will continue to deter and challenge incursions in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters. The colonial presence in Cyprus, where the Crown will also continue to invest in Sovereign Base Areas, from where they have a Gateway to the Eastern Mediterranean. And directly related to Malvinas we have to mention the Ascension Island enclave. Ascension, a volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean, it´s located halfway between America and Africa, and serves as a staging post for flights between the UK and the Malvinas with an approximate flight time of 8 hours. It´s strategically positioned approximately 4,000 miles from both the UK and the Malvinas Islands. It conforms the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, and Tristan da Cunha under the sovereignty of the British Crown.

Objective Antarctica

The Malvinas squatters have been managing the granting of licenses to explore the ocean sector for decades. The Argentine maritime platform is one of the richest biological areas in the world. The fishing activity takes place there in the manner of looting and uncontrolled predation, especially over the precious squid in its illex argentinus variety (season February-June). The fish processing vessels spend several weeks there, processing the catch. The destination is the Europe and the Far East markets. The same policy is being carried out regarding the licenses to explore and exploit offshore deposits in Malvinas waters. The illegal occupation under the UK protection and direction, violating all international regulations, is granting different companies exclusive rights to surveying, drilling and production.

Beyond these economic virtues that the imperial rule makes possible, Malvinas makes a strategic projection possible: the control over Antarctica. By virtue of upholding that claim, Malvinas became more important than the huge profits that capitalist predation on nature could leave today.

Based on the imperial usurpation of almost 2 million km2 of the Argentine maritime platform, the UK always wanted to extend its rights to Antarctica. The UK maintains a permanent mission there and was one of the 12 original signatories that had significant interests in Antarctica in the post second world war: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union and the United States. The UK sovereignty claims overlap with those of Argentina and Chile. Argentina’s claims are being unproductive. Chile has an absolutely condescending position with London.

As said in the Global Britain report, the UK projects further investment in their Antarctic scientific stations and capabilities, looking forward to uphold and strengthen the Antarctic Treaty System, presenting themselves as guarantors of regional security and as a vanguard of the investigation and preservation. They will be using their “new state-of-the-art” Polar Research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough and Ice Patrol ship, HMS Protector. The British Antarctic Survey provides the UK’s permanent presence not only in the British Antarctic Territory but the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

In the Brexit scenario, despite the fact that the Malvinas are no longer EU territory, the UK remains part of NATO, and the NATO continues to positively assess the South Atlantic position of one of its most conspicuous members. Malvinas provides NATO an invaluable strategic line in any future scenario. Meanwhile, Britain will remain to be the largest European spender on defense in NATO (2.2% of GDP).

Necessary responses

Argentina’s position has changed over the years. During neoliberalism (1989-2002) the decision was to freeze the claims, considering Malvinas as an isolated rock in the middle of the sea, carrying on with friendly cultural and economic relations with the UK.

In the period of popular governments and the process of Our American Regional Integration (2003-2015), the claim grew in the heat of the politicization of the masses. Periodically, the British Embassy in Buenos Aires was the object of protests and popular accusations with high media impact. Malvinas once again became a powerful anti-imperialist slogan. The governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández consistently stirred up the tone of the claim.

This was quashed by the arrival of the Macri government. As a government of the elites and the anti-national dependentist sectors, the President declared then that it would be very costly for the Argentine State to preserve the Malvinas Islands.

Today, thanks to a new Peronist government, things have improved from a discursive point of view, but there does not seem to be a strategy regarding the recovery of sovereignty over the islands. Although the Argentine Foreign Ministry accused Britain of colonialism, the claims are lukewarm or non-existent. Meanwhile, the British strategy continues its course at a steady pace. On January 31, a Lufthansa flight departed from Hamburg on the nonstop flight to Mount Pleasant Complex. It was the longest route that airline has ever operated non-stop, with a duration of 15 hours and 26 minutes on a 13,700 km route. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2019-2020 turned to be a record-breaking cruise season in the Malvinas Islands. A total of 73,000 passengers arrived there, up to 16.5% compared to the previous season.

Argentine officials contend that the only way to regain the islands is by diplomacy, negotiation, and compliance with UN resolutions. As it has been doing since the 1982 war, on February 2021, the Board of Directors of the UN Special Committee on Decolonization unanimously ratified its support for the resumption of negotiations between Argentina and the UK.

However, Argentina continues to be hamstrung due to the validity of a political legal scheme agreed with the UK, established by neoliberalism in 1990: the Madrid Accords mainly, complemented by the so-called “Investment Guarantee Treaty” (Treaty of London) among other subsequent Agreements and Understandings. Due to these pacts, Argentina is committed to separating the sovereignty issue from the economic issue, and promoting cooperation between the two countries and protecting British investments in the country. The Madrid agreements remain in force and as long as they are not annulled, it will be impossible for a change in the balance of forces to take place.

Another course of action is to advance in the claim of sovereignty jointly, as a regional bloc. Prior to its dismantling by recent neoliberal and pro-imperialist governments, the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) agreed to prevent ships flying the illegal flag of the Malvinas Islands from docking in their ports. The decision implied that the signatory governments would inform Argentina about the movement of hydrocarbons, fishing or tourist vessels heading to the Malvinas, Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. The governments of Uruguay and Basil prevented the docking of British flag ships that were going to provide logistics for the looting of the Malvinas (pre Bolsonaro). In Argentina, legislation was put into operation for this purpose, the so-called Gaucho Rivero Law.

It would be desirable for Argentina to take up recent experiences that were based on solidarity and anti-imperialist regional integration, such as what Rafael Correa expressed in 2012 at an ALBA-TCP summit. Correa said that Malvinas is a problem for all of Latin America. It represents a “most brutal, most blatant, crudest lag of colonialism in our America. It turns out that those are islands that England took from Argentina in the 19th century and it´s now the territory of Great Britain (…) How can we accept these things?” he remarked, recalling that the UK had “disobeyed” 40 UN resolutions to “enter dialogue” with Argentina therefore the Latin-American region hast to propose sanctions against the UK.

The memorable Commander Hugo Chávez could not be absent. At the aforementioned ALBA summit in 2012, resuming Ecuador’s proposal at the UN, he declared: “It is time for Latin America to decide sanctions against that misplaced power that pretends to be imperial and colonialist in the 21st century”. He therefore introduced the urge to take the integration process to the military and defense dimension. Chávez added “If the British Empire were to attack Argentina militarily, Argentina will not be alone”; and he clarified that his country was not a huge power, but “we have some irons (guns) and the will to face any imperialist aggression.”

In 2010 the Bolivarian president said “Doesn’t England, the UK, realize that it is violating international law, that it is violating the basic principles of geography, of history, time and space? Get out of there; give the Malvinas back to the Argentine people. Enough of empires”.

Antiimperialist solidarity has always been the only viable approach for Latin-American peoples. As Chávez suggested, Latin America needs a comprehensive defense plan. In the first decade of the century, this could not be possible due to the divergent interests of the countries of the region, as well as the imperial penetration within the national military forces in each country.

Anti-imperialist approach tinged with solidarity it´s the only way to regain Argentine sovereignty. And at the same time, it would be a heavy blow to 21st century colonialism.

Facundo Escobar

Facundo Escobar is an argentinian anthropologist, journalist, researcher and  International Relations and Political History Professor at National University of La Plata (UNLP), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

One response to “British Imperialism in the South Atlantic: Malvinas and Antarctica”

  1. Mike Hadley says:

    If the Falklanders are squatters then they have rights! If you go back far enough everyone, everywhere wandered in from somewhere else. Not every offshore island ‘belongs’ to the mainland.

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June 2024