Falklands war, round two?

by Gwynne Dyer

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?

A deep-sea drilling rig arrived this week from Scotland and has started searching for oil and gas in the North Falkland basin, about 150 km 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’ defense.

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. Which seemed, for a time, to have settled matters.

Argentina never did abandon its claim, and it never will. It has been drummed into many generations of Argentine schoolchildren that “The Malvinas are Argentina’s,” and the claim has become one of the pillars of Argentine nationalism. But defeat in the Falklands led to the collapse of the military regime, and subsequent democratic governments in Buenos Aires re-opened trade and travel ties with the islands.

Meanwhile, the previously impoverished islanders grew prosperous by selling licenses to exploit the rich fishing resources in the islands’ territorial waters. Oil drilling got under way 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 percent, 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 canceled 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 earlier this month, President Cristina Kirchner (the husband-and-wife team take turns in the presidency) decreed that all vessels traveling 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 Cabinet chief, Anibal Fernandez, said the decree sought to achieve “not only a defense 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 defenseless 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 reinforce 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 canceled the Argentina-U.K. 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.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.