Why China wants to propel the modernization of Argentina’s air force
Author: Loro Horta, Dili
In early May, several media reported that a Chinese delegation visited Argentina to discuss an important arms deal. The deal could be a game-changer for Argentina and the South American arms market.
According to reports, the two governments discussed the possibility of selling the Sino-Pakistani Argentina JF-17 fighters. If the deal goes through, it will be the most advanced fighter jet offered by China to the region and could pave the way for future arms deals with other South American countries.
This is not the first time that a major arms deal between China and Argentina has been announced. In 2015, the two countries signed an agreement for the purchase by Argentina of several weapon systems. Estimated at US $ 1 billion, the agreement included warships, armored vehicles and fighter planes. In the same year, Argentine Defense Minister Agustin Rossi announced that the JF-17 was among the items to be purchased in China.
These agreements were signed under the presidency of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (2008-2015), the leftist leader and Peronist who forged close ties with China. The election of right-wing president Mauricio Macri in December 2015 resulted in the cancellation of these projects. But since 2019, with the return of a Peronist government and with Kirchner as vice-president, these arms transactions have been reborn.
Argentina’s financial crises and the lack of foreign exchange to acquire expensive weapon systems have long been an obstacle to China’s sale of defense equipment to Argentina. However, several factors have emerged that increase the chances of success for Chinese arms companies.
The Argentine Air Force has reached a critical point in its inventory of fighter jets. For decades, the French-built Dassault Mirage III interceptor aircraft has been the backbone of Argentina’s fighter force. In 2015, due to aging aircraft and budget constraints, the Argentine Air Force was forced to withdraw its fighter jets.
For six years now, Argentina has not had combat interceptors, although neighboring countries Brazil and Chile have modern fighter jets. Argentina has attempted to purchase new jets from several Western countries, but the British government has maintained an effective arms embargo against the country since the Falklands War in 1982.
The United Kingdom is particularly sensitive to the acquisitions of fighter jets, recalling that most of the British losses in the Falklands War were inflicted by the Argentine Air Force. In 2015, Argentina attempted to acquire Swedish JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets, but Sweden backed off the sale due to pressure from London. South Korea too withdrew his offer sell Argentine fighter jets due to pressure from the UK. Even the fact that the JF-17’s ejection seat was built by a British company was a point of contention.
Not only are Western arms markets severely restricted in Buenos Aires, Argentina remains on the brink of bankruptcy. Chinese fighter jets are cheaper than Westerners. China also offers flexible payment methods and goodwill periods, where recipients are not required to pay for several years or can pay in installments. With Venezuela, US sources claim that China has sold weapons on generous terms in exchange for cheap oil.
China’s willingness to jointly produce the JF-17 and share its technology with Argentina softens the deal even further. Argentina has long favored agreements that allow technology transfers in order to strengthen its defense industry. The two countries are also negotiating a license for Argentina to produce Chinese helicopters and armored vehicles.
While some Argentinian politicians and parts of the military have opposed close military cooperation with China, they have offered no alternative. All branches of the Argentine army, not just the air force, are in urgent need of modernization.
If the deal goes through, Project JF-17 could lay the groundwork for China’s emergence as a major arms supplier to a region once dominated by the United States. Yet Beijing’s strategy of financial flexibility with Argentina goes beyond arms.
Argentina is the second largest country in Latin America and a member of the G20. The country’s vast and sparsely populated territory is rich in natural resources. In March, Argentine media, citing sources in the president’s office, reported that China and Argentina were negotiate 15 infrastructure projects worth 30 billion US dollars. Chinese companies have invested around US $ 15 billion in the country’s oil sector. Argentina is also a major source of agricultural exports (including soybeans) to China.
Short-term profits from arms sales are not Beijing’s top priority. Longer-term political and economic gains are the main drivers of Beijing’s Argentina strategy. Despite its many problems, Argentina is an important regional country. Beijing recognizes this and pledges to consolidate its presence in Argentina at a time when the country is in desperate need of help.
Loro Horta is a civil servant based in Dili and a former Ambassador of Timor-Leste to Cuba.
All opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author.