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The Falkland Islands Question as it Stands Today

Lachlan Forster

Source: Lex Villena/Reason

Over 40 years have passed since the Falklands War, which saw an obscure remnant of the former British Empire subject to a conflict between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the rights of sovereignty. The Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas, an archipelago of the east coast of South America which is referred to with differing names by the United Kingdom and Argentina respectively, remain a matter of controversy. Little diplomatic movement has been made on recognition, negotiations or a settlement since the days of Prime Minister Thatcher and General Galtieri. 


However, developments throughout the 2010s and early 2020s have gradually brought the islands back into the spotlight. The United Kingdom, post-Brexit, is seen as a more vulnerable nation as it searches for new economic collaborators to offset the detrimental impact leaving the EU has had upon its finances. Capitalising on this frailty, Argentina signalled in March 2023 that it would make its claim to the archipelago a primary matter once again. Speaking with the BBC in May 2024, President Javier Milei conceded that the islands were currently “in the hands of the UK” but vowed to use diplomatic channels to reincorporate Las Malvinas into Argentina. 


The Falklands are a potential tool for British foreign policy makers and could play an important role in strengthening ties between the UK and South America. However, Britain’s willingness to discuss the islands’ future depends entirely upon the motivation of the government of the day and the perceived benefits from natural resource exploration being undertaken. 


The Dispute as it Stands 


Both Argentina and the United Kingdom maintain that the Falkland Islands rightfully belong to their countries, citing differing evidence for why this is the case. 


Argentina maintains the principle of Uti Possidetis Juris, which stipulates that newly independent states should inherit their colonial borders, apply to this dispute. Argentina draws from the Treaty of Tordesillas to assert that the Falklands were always intended to be part of an Argentine state. Argentina enjoys support in its claim from all contemporary Latin American nations, alongside the People’s Republic of China, who made their position known in June 2023. Argentina has also expressed concerns about the presence of British Military personnel, aircrafts and vessels at the RAF Mount Pleasant and Port Stanley bases. Officially, these bases are used solely for defence and as an outpost of resupply for vessels travelling to the British Antarctic Territory. It has been suggested however that the islands may be utilised for British intelligence programs, including the launching of surveillance satellites. 


As part of its claim to sovereignty, the United Kingdom points to a 2013 referendum held on the islands with a 90% turnout, in which 99.8% of voters indicated a desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. Britain asserts that this referendum stands as a clear expression of the principles of self-determination on behalf of the residents of the Falkland Islands community. Argentina rejects the referendum, maintaining that those living on the archipelago are not citizens of the islands but British subjects, and thus have no right to assert ownership. Regardless, the opinions of Falkland Islanders pose a challenge for Argentina in claiming ownership, as any negotiation will have to involve the local community


The Falkland Islands have increasingly re-entered the public discourse in recent years. A controversial agreement between the European Union and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States which referred to the islands as Islas Malvinas caused diplomatic stirs in the United Kingdom, with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak calling the statement “unacceptable” and “regrettable”


President Javier Milei has also taken a different approach to the Falklands question than his predecessors. In maintaining that Argentina has “never created the conditions for Falkland Islanders to want to become Argentine citizens”, Milei has signalled that he is willing to consider the interests of the territory’s citizens. Recently, the president assured the international community that Argentina would not “seek conflict” over the islands, but remained firm in his goal to see Islas Malvinas return to Argentine sovereignty. Milei’s choice of words demonstrates a departure from the typically confrontational and hardline language used by Argentina’s previous governments, reflecting the president’s broadly pro-western stance and desire to focus on more pressing matters, such as the national economy.  


The Islands’ Value 


The United Kingdom currently administers fourteen Overseas Territories which are considered too small for independence due to their geographical and population limitations. These offshore territories provide a range of strategic benefits for the UK’s foreign policy, from financial havens such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands to military outposts like the British Indian Ocean Territory and Ascension Island. Much like the Falklands question, the United Kingdom is currently juggling a range of ongoing sovereignty disputes pertaining to these territories, including with Spain over Gibraltar, Cyprus over the Akrotiri and Dhekelia military bases and Mauritius over the Chagos islands. Nevertheless, the British Government is willing to contest these claims due to the previously stated strategic value of maintaining select overseas territories. 


The Falkland Islands’ value is furthered by offshore oil and gas deposits which were discovered around 2010. With an estimated 325 million barrels of oil located 200 kilometres from the islands’ north coast, the debate over sovereignty is given an entirely new motivation beyond national pride and military strategy. 


Navitas Petroleum Company is currently in the first phase of the Sea Lion Project, which will access the natural resources of the Falklands, and presumably provide the United Kingdom with a direct source of oil and natural gas. With global prices of oil rising due to the mercurial nature of international politics, this supply would be a crucial tool allowing the British economy to provide relief for economically embittered voters. 


Post-Colonial Dynamics 


Argentina has strayed away from using the Falkland Islands’ oil reserves during protests over the rights of sovereignty. Rather than make their argument purely economic, successive Argentine governments have drawn from a post-colonial tradition arguing that the Islas Malvinas should be made part of the closest mainland country. 


Although a study of Falklands history will show that the islands had no indigenous inhabitants until the arrival of European explorers in the 1760s, Argentina has been able to use anti-imperial rhetoric to their benefit amongst Global South nations. All South American nations currently support Argentina’s claim on Islas Malvinas. Although the United Kingdom maintains positive relations with Commonwealth nations in South America, such as Belize and Guyana, the Falklands has remained the elephant in the room, clouding discussions with potential partners in the region and setting an awkward tone for negotiations. 


When coupled with other nations that maintain overseas dependencies and territories, like the United States, France and the Netherlands, the position of the United Kingdom could easily be interpreted as stemming from a first-world centric outlet. The Falklands, however, differ from other British settler colonies, like Australia and Canada, due to the lack of an indigenous population. The current residents of the islands are descendants of the first communities to establish settlements in the territory, complicating Argentina’s quest to assert its sovereignty. 


The Islands’ Future


While the United Kingdom still holds legal sovereignty over the islands and are likely to deepen their resolve under the policy direction of Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron, the Falkland Islands could act as a useful tool to deepen relations in the region. Just as the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 was a positive development for UK-China relations, a potential handover of the Falklands to Argentina could demonstrate a new era of British policy towards South America. This diplomatic avenue is unlikely to be capitalised upon, particularly if the Sea Lion Project is successful in tapping into lucrative natural resource reserves, but the potential remains. 


The Falkland Islands continue to sit in the quiet eye of a hurricane of geopolitical, territorial and economic controversy. Argentina and the United Kingdom are currently enjoying a period of tacit friendship under the leadership of two liberal-minded governments that are highly unlikely to allow the Falklands issue to erupt into a second conflict. However, these governments will eventually pass, and the question of sovereignty will remain a sticking point in discussions between the two nations. It is paramount that a suitable settlement on the Falkland Islands’ future be negotiated during this time of friendship, in order to develop the bilateral alliance between both states and avoid future hard-line governments from leading the countries into another conflict.  

 

Lachlan Forster is a young writer studying at the University of Melbourne, majoring in International Relations and History. Lachlan is a New Colombo Plan Scholar, studying in Singapore and Malaysia. He has been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Journal of History and Farrago Student Magazine.



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