Why Britain and Argentina are tussling, again, over the Falklands

Britain's decision to send a new, more powerful warship to the Falkland Islands has ignited a long-simmering territorial dispute that came to war decades ago.

MoD/Crown Copyright/Reuters
The Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer HMS Dauntless arrives in her home port of Portsmouth in a this 2009 photo. A British minister will travel to the Falkland Islands in June to take part in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Britain's recapture of the islands from occupying Argentine troops, a visit that could rile Buenos Aires.

Decades of sharp exchanges between Britain and Argentina escalated this week as Argentina reasserted its claim to the Falklands Islands, a territory about 300 miles off the Argentine coast that has been ruled by Britain since 1833. Britain responded, as it always has, that it has no intention of giving the islands up.

Today, as the 30th anniversary of the two nations’ war over the South Atlantic's Falklands approaches, tensions have risen, with Britain accusing Argentina of “colonialism” for pursuing its claim.

On Jan. 30, Britain announced it was deploying the destroyer HMS Dauntless to the South Atlantic, replacing a less powerful warship that is there now. Today Prince William, second-in-line to the British throne, began his Royal Air Force posting to the Falklands – arriving, as many Argentineans saw it, in “the uniform of the conqueror," even though he is flying a search-and-rescue helicopter.

The Royal Navy denies either move is significant, saying it has long had a presence in the South Atlantic and the replacement of one warship with another is “routine.”

The two-month Falklands War, which began when Argentina invaded the islands with little warning in 1982, resulted in the death of 255 British and about 650 Argentinean soldiers. After almost three peaceable decades, tensions began to boil over once again in 2010, when British oil companies showed an interest in oil exploration near the Falklands. Argentina decreed that ships passing through its waters to the islands would require permits.

In June 2011, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez described Britain as a “crass colonial power in decline” after it refused to hold talks over the islands. Britain has said it will only agree to talks if Falkland residents – who are British citizens and wish to remain British, the government argues – request them.

Yesterday, Britain’s National Security Council discussed the Falkland’s defenses. Today Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that Britain was committed to protecting the islands and that it was up to the Falklanders to determine their nationality.

"What the Argentineans have been saying recently, I would argue, is actually far more like colonialism because these people want to remain British and the Argentineans want them to do something else."

Argentina's interior minister, Florencio Randazzo, hit back, describing Mr. Cameron’s words as “totally offensive.” Foreign Minister Hector Timerman described Britain as "a synonym for colonialism."

The squabbling has disrupted the lives of the 3,000 Falklanders, bringing higher food prices. Editor's note: a portion of the previous sentence was removed because it included incorrect information about a poll. The Islands’ economy, driven by raising sheep and fishing the in the rich waters of the area, generates about $170 million a year. 

In December, the South American trading bloc Mercosur agreed, as an act of solidarity with Argentina, that vessels sailing under a Falklands Islands flag would be banned from docking at the ports of any of its members. The Argentinean government has also threatened to cut the weekly route between Port Stanley and Punta Arenas in Chile, which includes a period of time in Argentinean airspace and is the Islands' only air link with South America, as well as its main link to the outside world, the Guardian reports. 

Following sweeping cuts to Britain’s armed forces, some have suggested that Britain would be less able to defend the Falklands than it was in 1982.

The presence of HMS Dauntless, a Type 45 destroyer, would make it hard for Argentina to try to attack the Falklands by air, because any war planes could be shot out of the sky by the ship’s powerful missile system. Dauntless, which can carry 700 people in the event of a civilian evacuation, is armed with high-tech Sea Viper anti-air missiles and can carry 60 troops.

“We will always be in a position to defend the Falkland Islands if necessary, not that we are aware of any military threat to the Falkland Islands at the moment,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague Tuesday. “We will always reaffirm that capability and we will always make sure that it’s there.”

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