In Blow to China, Argentina’s Milei Looking to US for Defense Cooperation
In Blow to China, Argentina’s Milei Looking to US for Defense Cooperation

By Autumn Spredemann

Over the past decade China’s security footprint in Argentina has grown considerably, but analysts say recent indicators demonstrate President Javier Milei may be shifting defense cooperation back towards the United States.

A 2012 agreement between officials in Argentina’s Neuquen Province and Beijing allowed the construction of a deep space tracking station near the Chilean border, that made Washington sit up and take notice.

The 50-year contract grants the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the ability to operate freely on Argentinian soil. The facility, known as Espacio Lejano, became the precedent for a Chinese ground tracking facility in Rio Gallegos, on the south eastern coastal tip of Argentina, which was formally announced in 2021.

Since the Espacio Lejano contract was signed, analysts and U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed concern over China’s expanding collaboration with Argentina in matters of security and surveillance.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has expanded its ability to extract resources, establish port, manipulate governments through predatory investment practices, and build potential dual-use space facilities,” U.S. Southern Command Gen. Laura Richardson said during a 2023 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

President Milei took office on Dec. 10, 2023, replacing the progressive President Alberto Fernandez, who forged closer ties with China and signed a 2022 deal to join the Communist Party’s Belt and Road Initiative. While campaigning, Mr. Milei made no secret of his disdain for communist regimes and signaled his intent to move away from socialist policies in favor of a more libertarian direction.

In the nearly seven months he has been in office, President Milei has enacted major economic reforms and a downsizing of government.

Other recent “positive indicators” indicate the Milei administration are prioritizing defense relations with the United States over China, said Leland Lazarus, the associate director for national security at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy.

“The fact is that in just six months, he’s already visited the U.S. multiple times. He’s met with Secretary Blinken, he’s been to the White House … all that is like absolute music to General Richardson’s ears. To Biden’s ears,” Mr. Lazarus told The Epoch Times.

Ms. Richardson traveled to Argentina in April, on a visit that included the donation of a Hercules C-130H transport aircraft to the Argentinian Air Force and a tour of a naval facility in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, the extreme tip of the country.

“We are committed to working closely with Argentina so that our collaborative security efforts benefit our citizens, our countries and our hemisphere in lasting and positive ways,” Ms. Richardson said in a statement at the time.

Argentine President-elect Javier Milei pauses for a photo while departing from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House in Washington, on Nov. 28, 2023. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

In Ushuaia, Ms. Richardson met with local military personnel to discuss their role in “safeguarding shipping routes vital to global trade.”

In an Argentinian Ministry of Defense release, President Milei confirmed that Ms. Richardson also checked on the progress of an “integrated naval base” at the Ushuaia naval facility.

Argentine officials stated that they also discussed “legislative modernization in defense matters.”

Under the previous administration, China had been given preferential treatment.

In June 2023, Tierra del Fuego Gov. Gustavo Melella gave China the go-ahead to build a “multi-purpose” port facility near the Strait of Magellan.

The project was promptly met with legislative backlash as three national deputies and members of the Civic Coalition filed an official complaint against the governor’s provincial decree to build a port with Beijing. The same group further accused Mr. Melella of violating Argentina’s national security.

No public records show the project has since moved forward.

Shift in Relations

Mr. Lazarus said Argentina’s desire for deeper security cooperation with Western partners was also evident in April when Argentina’s Minister of Defense, Luis Petri, signed a historic purchase agreement for 24 F-16 fighter jets from Denmark.

“Today we are completing the most important military aeronautical acquisition since 1983,” Mr. Petri said in an official press release.

“Thanks to this investment in defense, I can proudly say that we are beginning to recover our aerial sovereignty and that our entire society is better protected against all those threats that put us to the test.”

The purchase occurred after multiple media reports in 2022 said the previous administration under President Alberto Fernandez was considering the purchase of China–Pakistan-made JF-17 fighter jets. A minister of former President Mauricio Macri’s administration, who asked not to be identified, confirmed to The Epoch Times that a deal to purchase the JF-17 jets was under consideration during the Fernandez era.

Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez (L) arrives at Beijing’s airport ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Oct. 17, 2023. (Parker Song/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The China snub on such a notable arms deal is telling for some, as the CCP has invested a lot in Argentina’s defense sector.

“From 2009–2019 China transferred a total of $634 million worth of major military hardware to five South American countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela,” a House Foreign Affairs Committee brief states.

“The governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina have purchased PRC [People’s Republic of China] defense equipment, cooperated in military exercises, and engaged in educational exchanges and training for military personnel.”

China’s Space Interests

Access to space plays a key role in the CCP’s strategic aims.

So when reports surfaced in early April that President Milei’s administration wanted to inspect Espacio Lejano, experts said it supports his national security moves away from China.

It’s a good sign President Milei is making the request, Evan Ellis, a Latin America research professor for the U.S. Army War College, told The Epoch Times.

Under the Espacio Lejano contract, signed under the Peronist regime of Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, CCP officials don’t have to let anyone—even the Argentinian president—inside the facility without being given prior notice.

Under Article 3, the agreement states that Argentine officials can’t interfere or interrupt the “normal activities” of the facility and must explore alternative options and give an unspecified amount of notice before being granted access.

“When a leader shows up and walks around, the issue isn’t ‘wow, there’s a big telescope here’, it’s what it’s being used to track,” Mr. Ellis said.

China has maintained that Espacio Lejano is for deep space exploration, moon missions, and communications with existing satellites in orbit. But, like others, Mr. Ellis believes the claim of space exploration alone is highly unlikely.

“The big issue is: What could this facility do in times of war?” he asked.

Mr. Ellis maintains that the failure to find a proverbial “smoking gun” in the station doesn’t automatically negate nefarious activity..

“Theoretically, you may have been able to find people who weren’t supposed to be there … data you shouldn’t be collecting, but all of those things would be easy to hide with advance notice,” Mr. Ellis said, adding that a look at the type of equipment inside would also offer some insights.

The former minister under the Macri administration told The Epoch Times that an official inspection of Espacio Lejano took place in early May this year.

The main antenna of China’s deep space ground station in Neuquén Province, Argentina. (Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation)/CC)

“Here’s the more concerning issue: Neuquen is just one of 11 ground stations [and] space research facilities that China has in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s weird. It’s the most amount of space equipment they have outside their own country,” Mr. Lazarus said.

Mr. Lazarus shared data from the Gordon Institute illustrating how both China’s Espacio Lejano station and the Rio Gallegos facility offer an ideal surveillance position near polar orbit. Polar orbit is useful when collecting, transmitting, and tracking data because it offers the ability to observe the entire planet from space. Communications resolution is also enhanced due to how close orbiting satellites pass to the earth’s surface.

It also offers strategic advantages for any government wanting to engage in espionage.

“Space is being increasingly militarized” while China and Russia are developing new space systems to “improve their military effectiveness” and decrease the relevance of U.S. space systems, a 2022 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report stated,

In terms of deeper security collaboration with the United States, Mr. Ellis believes the Milei administration will do “everything possible without burning through his contracts with China.”

China is Argentina’s number two trade partner and both he and Mr. Lazarus agree that, while a desire for more strategic collaboration is apparent, President Milei won’t budge with Beijing.

However if Argentina’s defense cooperation with China turns frosty, Mr. Lazarus said the communist regime may wait until another Argentine administration is voted in to continue its expansion. One that’s more favorable to CCP goals.

For the moment, Argentina is experiencing what Mr. Lazarus called the “Miracle Milei” effect. Several months after taking office, President Milei announced the nation’s first budget surplus in nearly 20 years.

In a press release from Casa Rosada, President Milei said “we took the bull by the horns” to implement the “most ambitious shock stabilization program in our history.”

But Mr. Lazarus posed the question, “How long can the milagro [miracle] Milei really last?”

Argentinians will need to go through “quite a bit of pain” economically to effect any lasting change, Mr. Lazarus said.

He said this could lead to disenchantment and Argentinians can be fickle with their leadership, which could result in a regime change at the next election—at the end of 2027.

For now though, he says things are looking good for U.S. security interests. “Obviously we’re seeing a positive demand signal from Argentina.

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