For the populist president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, the ban on Falklands-flagged
ships agreed by the Mercosur summit
in Montevideo is a diplomatic triumph. It comes after a string of similar moves throughout the region aimed at tightening the noose around the Falklands. For example, HMS Gloucester was denied
access to Montevideo in 2010 and, in an effort to strengthen Brazilian-Argentinian ties, Brazil did the same when HMS Clyde sought to dock in Rio de Janeiro.
In reality, ships from the Falklands can switch flags before they enter any regional ports, but Argentina’s intent is to isolate the islands — and bring fellow South American nations
along with them in the process. In which case, the default British response of talking war is beside the point. The Falkland Islands and Britain are at risk of being outmanoeuvred diplomatically,
not confronted militarily. And the British government must find ways to strike back diplomatically, not listen to the pugilistic voices of ex-admirals.
That said, the situation is also not as clear-cut as Argentina — and the press — would have us believe. Yes, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica did say he would join other Mercosur states
in barring Falklands-flagged vessels from their ports. But Mujica also made clear that the Uruguayan government would refuse to join an economic or maritime blockade of the inhabitants of Falklands
because this, in his view, would represent a violation of their human rights and complicate negotiations between Argentina and the UK. So there will be clear limits to how far Argentina can go in
its effort to isolate the islands.
Besides, as maritime strategist James Rogers points out:
‘In some ways, though, the closure of South America’s Atlantic ports does not matter very much. There are only twenty-five vessels in the Falklands’ merchant marine; the
Royal Navy’s warships do not need to berth in South America’s Atlantic ports, for Britain has the logistical wherewithal to support them almost anywhere with its auxiliary fleet (as
well as at the naval station in the Falklands at Mare Harbour); and vessels flying Britain’s merchant ensign will still be welcome (Uruguay went out of its way to assert that its support
for Argentina is not an anti-British commercial drive).’
The Argentinian move requires a firm response from Britain, but one with perspective. As Argentina has rallied Mercusor, so the UK needs to rally its allies in the EU, NATO and
elsewhere. Perhaps a senior British minister should consider spending some of his or her Christmas holiday on the Falklands. Talk of a sending a nuclear submarine will be counter-productive by
confirming Argentina’s narrative of Britain as a colonial military aggressor and the Falkland Islands as some kind of foreign implant. Diplomacy is not a lesser tool and ought to be the default
option, not military manoeuvres.