Bolivia has a satellite named after the Incan warrior Túpac Katari who raised an army of 40,000 to fight the Spanish. Chile also has a satellite: it has a decidedly non-Spanish name, “Charlie.” Now China will be operating in the Southern Cone too as it is opening a space station in Argentina. The European Union already has one there.
Argentina is a logical place for China to locate its satellite communication station. In addition to being on the opposite side of the planet, which will give China line of site radio coverage to its satellites, China and Argentina have increased bilateral relations over the past few years.
China loaned Argentina $11 billion in 2014. That was seen as a financial lifeline for a country that is low on hard currency reserves. China also invested in two large hydroelectric projects. President Xi Jinping visited Argentina in 2014 after attending the BRICS summit in Brazil. The Argentines too have found a ready market in China for its vast acreage of corn, soybeans, and cattle. Chinese electronic companies also manufacturer cell phones and computers in Argentina. That is in part due to import restrictions designed to stop the hemorrhaging of dollars.
One can readily understand why Argentina would look to China for increased trade instead of, say, the USA. Relations between Argentina and the USA under President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner have been frosty. The president routinely bashes New York hedge funds who are seeking to collect on unpaid sovereign debt as “Vulture Funds.” Argentina recently defaulted on its debt for the second time in 10 years. They say they were forced to do so when a New York court ruled that American banks could not process Argentine debt payments. The court said Argentina was not allowed to repay some creditors unless it repaid all its creditors, including the Vulture Funds. But Argentina did not have enough cash for that. It may also be worth noting that Argentina, like Chile, gave tacit, secret support to the Axis powers in World War II, as both countries had Fascist governments at that time. Moreover, the USA took an active role in Argentina’s 1982 war with the UK over the British-controlled Falkland Islands, called Las Malvinas in Latin America. Argentina still is trying to force the world to pay attention to that issue, which has pretty much been ignored.
It is possible that Argentina could warm toward the USA after Cristina Fernandez leaves office in October. But few doubt that much will change in a country so heavily wedded to the decidedly non-capitalist, populist policies know as Peronism, which originated in the 1940s with the election of Juan Peron. He, of course, had his famous wife Eva Peron at his side, who soon eclipsed his fame.
The China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General will open in 2016. It will be the first Chinese space station outside of Chinese territory. The station, located close to the border with Chile, will provide needed employment in the wind-swept Patagonia region of Neuguen. Already 300 Argentines work there, where China has a 50-year lease on 200 hectares of land.
The Guardian newspaper says the station will be used to assist unmanned Chinese missions to Mars and the Moon. Argentina will get to use the 35-meter-diameter antenna 10% of the time.
Based on the name China Satellite “Launch” and Tracking Control General, the Chinese could launch rockets from there, although news reports do not say that any launchpad has been built. The European Space Agency has for many years launched its rockets from French Guyana, some 10 hours flying time north of the Chinese facility.
The European Space Agency already operates a communications space station in Malarque, much further north in Mendoza. That station opened in 2012.
The law granting the Chinese land to build the station was passed as part of a trade bill by the national assembly where the President has majorities in both chambers. There was grumbling from the opposition parties who questioned whether this station could have military use. The majority political party assured that the station is for civilian use. La Nacion newspaper reported that one opposition lawmaker questioned increased financial ties to China in general. Elisa Carrió reminded the assembly of loan made that British bank Barings Brothers made with Argentina in 1824. That loan took Argentina 81 years to repay.
La Nacion also reported that the Americans and Europeans have also questioned whether the station could have military use at some point. The European Space Agency pointed out that their station belongs to no government, since the space agency is a consortium of multiple governments. They attest that civilian personnel run their facility. The Chinese facility will be operated by the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
American analysts Ian Easton and Mark Strokes raised the alert of the installation of Chinese space stations in different parts of the world in a report written for Instituto Proyecto 2049, several years ago.
La Nacion says three American military attaches were dispatched from the U.S. embassy to inquire about the facility. The Argentine military told them they were not consulted about the deal. The Americans were given publicly available information about the facility.
In other matters, China also could be where Argentina looks to purchase fighter jets for its aging fleet. El Mercurio says that Argentina is considering the purchase of 14 to 20 FC-1 and F-17 Thunder jets from Chengu Aircraft Industry Group. Defense Industry Daily reports that Argentina has had a hard time procuring parts for its British aircraft, which, given the Falklands war with the British, make sense. Argentina too has not had much success looking for aircraft from France, Spain, or Israel. The Russian Times last year reported that Russian “may” offer Argentina the rental of Russian jets in exchange for grain.