Resolving the Falklands/Malvinas: is it elemental?

By Matthew Benwell

This week we are delighted to host a guest post from Dr Matthew Benwell on, ‘Resolving the Falklands/Malvinas dispute: is it elemental?’ Matthew is an RHUL Geography alumni having completed his PhD here in 2008. He is currently a Lecturer in the School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology at Newcastle University and convenor of their Power, Space, Politics research cluster. Matthew’s research addresses contemporary debates in political and social geography, focusing on how geopolitics is represented, experienced and remembered in people’s everyday lives. More specifically, it looks at how young citizens imagine and engage with geopolitical issues, past and present, across a host of different geographies.

The blog post stems from a paper written for a Special Issue of the journal Geopolitics focusing on Subterranean Geopolitics, edited by Rachael Squire and Klaus Dodds. The paper is available online and the full issue is set to be published in 2018.

Benwell MC. (2017) Going underground: banal nationalism and subterranean elements in Argentina’s Falklands/Malvinas claim. Geopolitics [Special Issue on Subterranean Geopolitics] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14650045.2017.1387776

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RAF servicemen are greeted by an Argentiaian navy chief Source: https://news.sky.com/story/submarine-hunt-raf-plane-back-on-argentine-soil-for-first-time-since-falklands-11139053

Towards rapproachment? 

Diplomatic relations between Argentina and the UK have changed beyond recognition in the last two years since the departure of Cristina Kirchner’s administration. The election of pro-business candidate Mauricio Macri as President of Argentina in late 2015 and the UK’s impending exit from the EU have seen both countries more eager to do pragmatic bilateral business, putting geopolitical differences to one side.

This apparent rapprochement has been received more cautiously in the Falkland Islands where Members of the Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) have lamented the lack of tangible results. One area where progress has been made – thanks to the cooperation of the FIG and the broader backdrop of warming British-Argentine relations – is the Red Cross mission to identify the remains of unidentified Argentine soldiers buried at Darwin cemetery in the Falklands. Families of these hitherto anonymous Argentine soldiers killed in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war are set to begin receiving the results of these DNA examinations in the next few weeks.

This has now been followed up with the unprecedented British military response to a set of entirely unexpected circumstances, in this case the disappearance of the Argentine submarine the ARA San Juan. This saw an RAF Voyager aircraft, with its cargo of specialist equipment to assist with submarine crew recovery, landing on Argentine soil – the first time a British military airframe had touched down in the country in over 35 years.

It’s elemental

The common characteristic linking these examples of British-Argentine collaboration is their elemental nature – in other words, matter found underground or under the surface of the sea was a trigger for a coordinated response. To what extent can engagements with these typically underwater and underground elements provide ways forward for the improvement of diplomatic relations between Argentina and the UK? Can these events, motivated by humanitarian impulse, shape future developments in the intractable sovereignty dispute in the South Atlantic?

First, a note of caution is necessary. As my recent paper points out, the subterranean and submarine have not always been the cause of such cordial cooperation. Elements like earth, water, ice and rocks can be deployed in ways that reinforce territorial nationalism through their display in museums, monuments and other public spaces. The controversial sinking of the ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands/Malvinas War and more recent controversies surrounding conflicting claims to the continental shelf in the South Atlantic, are also illustrative of the bitter geopolitical wrangling that can be associated with the submarine. These are cogent reminders that underground elements are certainly not a panacea for improving geopolitical relations in the South Atlantic.

Subterranean and submarine surprises 

But as the recent subterranean excavations and submarine (as well as aviation) searches in and around the Falklands have shown, state engagements with the elements do not necessarily have to heighten geopolitical tension either. Instead, the practices taking place within earth, water, air and upon geological features such as the continental shelf show that these elements are far from an inevitable source of conflict. Rather they can surprise us and lead to acts of solidarity, comradeship and mutual cooperation between states that have longstanding geopolitical differences.

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Argentine and RAF crews speak within the cockpit of a plane. Source: https://news.sky.com/story/submarine-hunt-raf-plane-back-on-argentine-soil-for-first-time-since-falklands-11139053

The question that remains is whether these examples of humanitarian teamwork in the air, marine and terrestrial spaces around the Falkland Islands can be harnessed in ways that have an enduring impact on diplomatic relations between the Islands, Argentina and the UK. Although much of the press coverage in the wake of the disappearance of the ARA San Juan centred on the positive exchanges between Argentine and British service personnel, there is another significant constituency in the Falklands/Malvinas dispute who should not be overlooked: the Falkland Islanders.

Ways forward

Given the deterioration of trust between the Falkland Islands and Argentina, a legacy of military invasion and hostile diplomacy from previous administrations in Buenos Aires, considerable work will be required to build diplomatic confidence. If collaborative responses to emergencies are to have longer-term consequences for things like environmental stewardship and fisheries management in the waters of the South Atlantic, the process will need to fully engage Argentina, the UK and the Falkland Islands. The willingness of the FIG to allow aircraft involved in the search for the ARA San Juan to use RAF Mount Pleasant, alongside heartfelt messages of support and then condolence from citizens of the Falklands (as well as Argentine politicians’ acknowledgement of this support from Islanders), show that there is hope for more conciliatory and cooperative relations in the future.

It is a cruel irony that the loss of 44 lives in a submarine vessel purchased to undertake surveillance of British military movements in the South Atlantic, has led to such extraordinary levels of solidarity between the Falkland Islands, Argentina and the UK. The best way to honour their memory would be to use this rare example of collaboration as the catalyst to explore possibilities for more peaceful exchanges and relations (with)in the South Atlantic.


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Contact details for Matthew can be found here: 

matthew.benwell@ncl.ac.uk

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