China-Argentina on verge of region-rattling fighter deal

China-Argentina on verge of region-rattling fighter deal

China may be close to clinching a huge weapons sale to Argentina involving fighter jets and armored vehicles, a deal that would give Beijing military clout in a region traditionally seen as America’s sphere of influence.

This week, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that Argentina’s Ambassador to China Sabino Vaca Narvaja and Argentinian Defense Minister Jorge Taiana met in Buenos Aires recently to discuss defense cooperation plans with China, which includes the possible purchase of JF-17 fighter jets, 8×8 armored vehicles and military personnel exchanges.

SCMP mentions that the JF-17, which China co-produces with Pakistan, is a potential candidate to fill the Argentine Air Force’s longstanding fighter gap. The Chinese fighter is reportedly competing against India’s HAL Tejas, Russia’s MiG-35 and secondhand Danish F-16s. 

The report said that Vaca Narvaja met with representatives from China National Aero-Technology International Engineering Corporation last November to discuss Argentina’s possible JF-17 purchase. Moreover, Chinese and Argentinean representatives discussed possibly co-producing the aircraft.

However, the report states that Argentina will not make any immediate aircraft purchases, with President Alberto Fernandez saying that his country has to allocate its limited resources to more important areas than military aircraft.

Argentina has been struggling to rebuild its military since the 1982 Falklands War, with subsequent US and UK sanctions on arms sales hobbling its modernization.

While SCMP mentions that China’s JF-17 contains a UK-made Martin-Baker ejection seat, it can be replaced with a domestic version and that the real issue is whether Argentina can afford the JF-17.

The Argentine Air Force has been particularly hard hit by sanctions and other factors preventing modernization. Meta-Defense noted in a December 2022 article that while it had 240 combat aircraft during the Falklands War, the collapse of military rule, economic crises and sanctions have left it with only around 20 upgraded A-4AR Fighting Hawks, less than ten Pampa 3 trainer aircraft and no supersonic fighters.

Argentina’s air force is behind the times. Image: Facebook

It also says that while Argentina tried to acquire modern fighters such as the Kfir C1, F-16C/D, HAL Tejas and FA-50 in the 2000s and early 2010s, UK components incorporated in the aircraft meant Argentina could not acquire them.

In the case of the Argentine Navy, Global Security notes that it has had a substantial block obsolescence problem since 2020, as most of its ships were acquired from 1975 to 1985 and were envisioned to have a 40-year service life.

The report mentions the Argentine Navy is already small for its long coastline and large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and has struggled with delayed upgrades for its four German-made MEKO 360 destroyers and six MEKO 360 frigates and expired munitions. Its two remaining submarines, meanwhile, have been inactive since 2020.

Global Security mentions that the Argentine Army still relies on 1970s technology, noting that the lack of modern equipment has become a barrier to military operations and impeded the development of new military tactics.

The report also says that maintenance is limited, with preventive maintenance almost nonexistent, forcing the Argentine Army to resort to cannibalization to maintain its equipment.

Given all that, China may see Argentina’s urgent need to modernize its military as an opportunity to establish a foothold in Latin America, a move that would have significant strategic implications.

Richard Aboulafla notes in a June 2021 article for Foreign Policy that if China can succeed in selling its fighter jets and sophisticated weapons to other countries aside from a small core group consisting of states like Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the sale would prove its appeal as an alternative strategic partner from the US and Europe.

Aboulafla also mentions that fighter jet sales often involve a trade relationship or economic sweeteners such as market access or technology transfer to offset the costs of the weapons transfer.

He also says fighter exports reflect the strength of the supplier’s alliances, can lower production costs through economies of scale, provide a captured market for maintenance and spare parts, and allow for harmonized operations and easier communications.

Loro Horta, in a July 2021 article for East Asia Forum, says that China’s push to sell the JF-17 to Argentina might be the former’s breakout to establish itself as a major weapons supplier in a region dominated by the US.

He mentions that China’s proposed fighter sale to Argentina is especially attractive in terms of flexible payment options, China’s willingness to engage in joint production and its openness to technology transfer.

Horta argues that short-term profits are not China’s objective in selling fighter jets to Argentina and that the sale would be driven by long-term political and economic goals. He notes that Argentina is the second-largest country in Latin America, with a sparsely-populated territory rich in natural resources.

He also mentions that China and Argentina have negotiated infrastructure projects worth US$30 billion, with China investing US$15 billion in Argentina’s oil sector. Argentina is already a major food exporter to China, including large shipments of soybeans.

China’s efforts to woo Argentina align with its larger geopolitical strategy in Latin America, writes Diana Roy in an April 2022 article for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Roy notes that China’s foreign aid, investment and soft power with Latin American states has earned Beijing political goodwill and raised its profile as an alternative strategic partner.

Chinese then-foreign minister Wang Yi (R) meets with Argentine Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero in Rome, Italy, October 30, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

Roy also points out that China’s economic and military outreach to Latin America aims to diplomatically isolate Taiwan, with the region’s diplomatic recognition of the latter declining in recent years.

She mentions that the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua dropped their recognition of Taiwan in 2018 and 2021 after being offered economic and infrastructure incentives. Honduras is poised to follow suit this year.

Roy says that China’s fighter sales pitch to Argentina and more extensive outreach to Latin America has raised US concerns of losing its “positional advantage” in the Western Hemisphere, leading the Biden administration to label China as a “strategic competitor” in the region while accusing it of bolstering authoritarian regimes to legitimize its brand of government.