Mar de Hoces (Drake Passage): increasing tension between Argentina, Great Britain and Chile

10 September, 2021

«ARA Islas Malvinas» crossing «mar de Hoces» (Drake Passage).
«ARA Islas Malvinas» crossing «mar de Hoces» (Drake Passage).

Britain is militarizing the Falklands/Malvinas at full speed. Argentina is building its largest military base in Ushuaia and its senate is preparing to create a new crime of opinion: doubting or belittling Argentina’s claims to sovereignty over the islands. And in case the increase in tension was not enough, Chile is unilaterally extending its southern borders, calling into question the already tense balance in the control of the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage that separates South America from Antarctica. Why are this dance of positions and this apparently gratuitous increase in tension as well as the most crass nationalism happening right now?

Table of Contents

Context: Trawlers raise the value of the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage warning of Chinese ambitions and the US and Britain respond by militarizing the Falklands/Malvinas and putting unprecedented pressure on the Argentine government

Chinese trawler fleet vessels in the vicinity of the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage
Chinese trawler fleet vessels in the vicinity of the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage

In August 2020 a Chinese fishing fleet of 340 vessels appeared off the Galapagos putting the Ecuadorian, Colombian and Peruvian navies on alert… as well as the United States. Chinese trawlers are notorious for wantonly destroying entire breeding grounds and ravaging seabeds wherever they extend their nets.

But although they kept skirting the outside of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of South American Pacific Rim countries until November, in December part of the fleet entered Argentine EEZ waters and was poised to enter the Atlantic, causing alarm bells to ring in Buenos Aires. The most conservative press, encouraged by the United States, then described the trawler fleet as a “naval militia”, pushing towards a warmongering reading of its arrival and clamoring for a reinforcement of the controls and defenses of the Argentine EEZ.

The echoes of the campaign reached Europe, where the press reported the arrival of the trawler fleet as if it were a plague, forgetting that its destructive environmental effect is the same as that produced by the European trawler fleet in Africa and the South Atlantic.

Underneath all this: the fear that Chinese trawlers would incorporate into their annual route the crossing of the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage. The idea of China systematically disputing the South Atlantic fishing grounds with European deep-sea fleets was immediately seen as a strategic danger in Brussels. The Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage was back in the news.

But, while Brussels reacted by adding a further aggravation to its ongoing give-and-take with Beijing, the US and Britain reacted by putting unusual pressure on Argentina and redoubling their military presence in the Malvinas/Falklands.

Read also: The Malvinas/Falklands come back to the center of the global imperialist conflict, 14/4/2021

Peronism returns to its worst jingoism and makes it a crime of opinion to doubt or belittle the Argentine claim to the Malvinas/Falklands

Patricia Bullrich in paramilitary garb surrounded by PFA cadres during her ministerial term.
Patricia Bullrich in paramilitary garb surrounded by PFA cadres during her ministerial term.

As we warned back in April:

The situation is volatile and everything seems to indicate that, should the US and Britain continue to increase pressure against China in waters that Argentina considers its sovereignty without the support of the Casa Rosada, the matter could destabilize Fernández within the Argentine power structure… opening the way to the much more belligerent positions of the Kirchnerist wing of the government.

The Malvinas/Falklands come back to the center of the global imperialist conflict, 14/4/2021

In fact, only a few days later the permanent squabbling of Argentine domestic politics was responsible for reviving the jingoist atmosphere so dear to Kperonism. The paradox is that the excuse was given by the head of PRO, Macri’s party now in opposition. Patricia Bullrich’s militarism comes from her youth in the guerrilla outskirts of Peronism. As Macri’s security minister she showered statements in favor of an “iron fist” while militarizing the Federal Police and was accused of covering up violations of basic human rights during the repression of different protest movements.

This April, already as opposition leader and discussing the government’s failure to negotiate with Pfizer for the purchase of vaccines, she slipped in an irony that reopened the Peronist jingoist spigot:

Pfizer did not even ask for a change in the law, the only thing it asked for was a guarantee insurance as it was requested from all countries in the world. It is something reasonable, it didn’t even ask for the continental icecaps, well I don’t know, we could have given it the Malvinas Islands

Immediately, seeing their opportunity to corner President Fernández within the government, portray the opposition as “traitors to the nation” and whip up nationalist hysteria, K (Kirchnerist) Peronism launched a campaign to outlaw dissent over the islands and even criminalize it.

The bill establishes that authorities of political parties and officials who perform tasks in the national public administration, decentralized agencies, autonomous entities, senior personnel of the armed and security forces, who omit to publish or disseminate through the media incorrect information about the Malvinas Islands or deny Argentine sovereignty over the archipelago, will be punished with a fine. The initiative provides for penalties for those who omit to publish or disseminate through the media incorrect information about the Malvinas Islands or deny Argentine sovereignty over the archipelago.

The “Frente de Todos” presented a bill to punish those who deny Argentine sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands. Ámbito

The bill finally submitted by the government in August to the Senate goes even further. And among other things it bans from running for public office those who do not defend the sovereignty of the Argentine state over the Malvinas/Falklands

The militarization of Malvinas/Falklands, Tierra del Fuego and the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage

British military exercises in Malvinas/Falklands
British military exercises in Malvinas/Falklands

But as Argentina moved toward mandating an official position on the Malvinas/Falklands among its public officials, Britain kept up the pressure. Already at the end of April new military missile exercises raised alarms in Buenos Aires.

In June, Argentina’s defense minister bluntly outlined the dangerous game that is being played in the South.

We indulge in an analysis of the strategic and geopolitical importance of the Malvinas Islands for Great Britain. They are not there to enforce the wishes or self-determination of the islanders. They are not there for the exploitation of the fisheries which allow the inhabitants of Malvinas to have a higher status of life. They are not there for the potential oil resources. We all know that the real interest lies in the military importance for the United Kingdom of that military enclave in the South Atlantic, its projection to Antarctica and the Strait of Magellan

Statements by Agustín Rossi collected in Infobae

In July, in order to add fuel to the fire, the EU, which holds its own trade and border poker game with the British, granted tariff exemptions to British fishing in the Falklands/Malvinas, increasing Argentine insecurity and further fueling the increasingly hysterical and victimistic climate encouraged from Peronism.

But the real bombshell was yet to detonate. In August, the British government was given an A+ credit rating by S&P Global. The rating gave it access to credit to redevelop its main port in the Malvinas/Falklands into a deepwater port. Although the emphasis was officially placed on the cruise business and the possibility of docking large factory ships, the British government itself made no secret of the military centrality of the investment, which would make the archipelago the guardian of Antarctica and, possibly, the largest military base in the South Atlantic.

Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage and the Malvinas/Falklands
Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage and the Malvinas/Falklands

The rush to tender was not the product of an outburst by Johnson. What the British intend is to pre-empt the Argentine government’s plans, published this April, to build in Ushuaia a port of reference for the connection with Antarctica under the same model of “integrated base” -that is, militarized- and administered by the Navy.

The Executive Branch has already approved the initiative to build an Integrated Naval Base, under the Argentine Navy, as a hub for Antarctica and the South Atlantic. The project is currently in the development stage, with the first stage already completed.

The aim is to contain all the scientific, academic, operational and logistic activities required by Antarctica in the same place, which will also function as a strategic operations center for large ships operating in the South Atlantic. Currently, the naval activity of large ships is satisfied by the naval base located in Punta Arenas, Chile. The Integrated Naval Base will be located in the city of Ushuaia in the province of Tierra del Fuego, positioning it as the southernmost base in the world

Report in the magazine “Zona Militar”, linked to the Argentine Army

The reference to Chile was not accidental either. By now, no one denies that control of the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage is the sole first objective. The spoils are in the austral continent. And there are more contenders than just Britain and Argentina.

Chile enters the strategic race to control the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage… creating a new maritime boundary delimitation conflict with Argentina

Chile's O'Higgins Base in Antarctica, across the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage. Improvement, renovation and expansion work have started recently.
Chile’s O’Higgins Base in Antarctica, across the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage. Improvement, renovation and expansion work have started recently.

The dance which started in 2009 between Chile and Argentina on the borders at the southern tip of the continent and thus on the access gate control to Antarctica, could only accelerate at a faster pace. In September 2020 Argentina had already published a new official map leaving Tierra del Fuego in the center of the country in order to assert its sovereignty over Antarctic waters. Immediately the Chilean government rejected it.

But on Aug. 23 it went a step further. The Chilean Foreign Ministry “updated” the nautical chart delimiting the country’s maritime borders to include 5,302km2 in the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage hitherto claimed only by Argentina (since 2009). Obviously, the Casa Rosada and the Foreign Ministry reacted angrily and tried to involve -unsuccessfully- the ParlaSur. While the Argentine press some days accused Piñera of opening a sterile conflict to score points in the Chilean political crisis while others days it saw insults where there were none, the game of the foreign ministries was getting increasingly deeper.

The Argentine government accused Chile of having an “expansionist vocation” and asserted that this measure represents “an unusual advance” aimed at projecting the continental shelf to the east of meridian 67º 16′ 0. But meanwhile, the Chilean political apparatus rallied together, through a formal declaration and with the daughter of President Allende at the head, in support of the Piñera government on this issue.

In reality, the Chilean ruling class as a bloc is playing a new game with Argentina. It does not intend to immediately raise the tension, hence the calls for negotiation, dialogue, etc. It is redefining the chessboard… in its favor. On the one hand it has moved to strongly support Argentina’s claim on the Malvinas/Falklands at the UN, on the other hand it only needs to reopen the border dispute to be able to set conditions on Argentina in the imperialist tug-of-war over the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage and Antarctica.

As the map of imperialist tensions in the Sickle Sea and the South Atlantic is being drawn, Great Britain, in its pressure against China, can only generate more and more conflicts near and within Argentina, where it will irremediably reinforce the most warmongering and reactionary Peronist jingoism. And while the two Atlantic powers clash, Chile conditions its support to Buenos Aires -that is, its eventual neutrality in case of armed conflict- to the total control of the Pacific margin of the Mar de Hoces/Drake Passage… and sooner or later, of a part of the Antarctic continent.