Explained: Why has the UK objected to China backing Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands?

Four decades after the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina ended bitterly for Buenos Aires, a statement from China on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics, that affirmed Beijing’s support for Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands, had stirred discussions around the long-standing dispute.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez issued a joint statement last week that said China “reaffirms its support for Argentina’s demand for the full exercise of sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands,”, with the statement using the Argentine name for the territory. Argentina has maintained that the Falklands were illegally taken from it in 1833 and invaded the British colony in 1982. That incident resulted in what later came to be known as the Falklands War that lasted a little over three months, ending in victory for the United Kingdom.

Why this chatter now?

For starters, this discussion isn’t new. The recent global attention on this issue can be attributed to the high profile and very visible platform of the Winter Olympics where China and Argentina issued a joint statement referring to the islands, at a time when all eyes were on Beijing.

Since it is the 40th anniversary of the war this year, Argentina has been single-mindedly engaging regionally and internationally, to assert its stance on the sovereignty of these islands and this joint statement by Beijing and Buenos Aires is among the most prominent of these engagements.

Last week, at the Latin American Parliament (Parlatino), a regional, permanent organisation composed by the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, member states backed Argentina’s stance. Argentina’s foreign ministry later issued a statement saying that Parlatino legislators and members of Malvina’s council and diplomats, “called on the international community to urge the British Government to resume negotiations with Argentina in line with the provisions of international law,” said a report by Telesur, a Latin American publication.

What is this dispute about?

Since the 18th century, the Falkland Islands, located off the coast of Argentina in the south Atlantic Ocean, have always been subjected to colonisation and conquests by Britain, France, Spain and Argentina. Prior to the 1700s, the islands were uninhabited, with France first establishing a colony there in 1764. The next year, when the British arrived to claim the islands for themselves, it marked the start of a dispute that has been ongoing ever since.

By 1811, colonial powers had left, with the islands largely being used and visited by sealing and whaling ships. But in November 1820, an American privateer David Jewett once again kick-started a fresh dispute that till then had significantly subsided, by claiming possession of the islands on behalf of Argentina. There are varying opinions by academics on whether this possession was undertaken specifically on instructions from Argentina or whether Jewett unilaterally made such a decision.

Over a period of two decades, minor conflicts followed between Argentina and Britain, with both asserting dominance over the other, alternatively finding victory in the conflict. That ended in 1840, when the Falklands became a Crown colony and Britain sent Scottish settlers to officially establish a community, one that was largely pastoral.

Strategically, the Falkland Islands were important to Britain and that was evident in how they were used by London as a military base in the South Atlantic Ocean, both during the First and Second World War. However, following the end of the Second World War, the islands once again became a cause of dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina, with both asserting sovereignty over the islands.

What happened to the islands post WWII?

The dispute continued in the post WWII global scenario. Argentina’s assertion of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands during the presidency of Juan Perón briefly soured relations with the United Kingdom. In December, 1965, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 2065, a non-binding resolution that recognized the existence of a sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over these islands, that urged both countries to find a peaceful solution to the dispute.

Over the next three years, both Argentina and the United Kingdom held talks about the islands, but those were impeded because settlers in the Falklands, who were originally from the United Kingdom dissented, forcing a halt to all negotiations between the countries till 1977.

In the run up to the war, the United Kingdom’s Thatcher government strongly considered handing over the Falkland Islands to Argentina because of difficulties in financially maintaining the islands. In the background of these developments, conflict between the two countries over these islands were bubbling beneath the surface.

How did the Falklands War break out?

Insisting that the United Kingdom had illegally taken the Falkland Islands from them, Argentina invaded the islands in 1982, sparking the Falklands War. Experts believe that the invasion that started in April that year was unexpected. But Laurence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, believes that the “conflict could and should have been foreseen”, write authors Carine Berbéri and Monia O’Brien Castro in their book ‘30 Years After: Issues and Representations of the Falklands War’. This was in part due to Argentina being under the control of the military government, and because it was also the 150th anniversary of British occupation.

The United Kingdom was not prepared for the attack and plans had to be rapidly put into motion. London was at a disadvantage because of the geographical location of the islands, approximately 7,000 nautical miles away. A little over two months after it broke out, the war ended with the United Kingdom’s victory.

How can the war be analysed four decades on?

In his book ‘The Falklands War: An Imperial History’, author Ezequiel Mercau writes that “neither the dispute, nor the war—nor indeed its aftermath—can indeed be divorced from the legacies of empire”, because “a lingering attachment to Greater Britain played a significant role in perpetuating the dispute between Argentina and Britain from the 1960s until the eve of the war”.

In the post-imperial era, the Falklands dispute is still framed in terms of this notion of “Greater Britain” and “national identity”, “while accusations of imperialism and neo-colonialism persist”, Mercau writes.

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