QUINTUCO, Argentina — “The giant antenna rises from the desert floor like an apparition, a gleaming metal tower jutting 16 stories above an endless wind-whipped stretch of Patagonia. The 450-ton device, with its hulking dish embracing the open skies, is the centerpiece of a $50 million satellite and space mission control station built by the Chinese military. The station began operating in March, playing a pivotal role in China’s audacious expedition to the far side of the moon — an endeavor that Argentine officials say they are elated to support.”
The isolated base, continues Ernesto Londoño in The New York Times, is one of the most striking symbols of Beijing’s long push to transform Latin America and shape its future for generations to come — often in ways that directly undermine the United States’ political, economic and strategic power in the region.
But the way the base was negotiated — in secret, at a time when Argentina desperately needed investment — and concerns that it could enhance China’s intelligence gathering capabilities in the hemisphere have set off a debate in Argentina about the risks and benefits of being pulled into China’s orbit.
“Beijing has transformed the dynamics of the region, from the agendas of its leaders and businessmen to the structure of its economies, the content of its politics and even its security dynamics,” said R. Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American studies at the United States Army War College. Image credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times.
For much of the past decade, the United States has paid little attention to its backyard in the Americas. Instead, it declared a pivot toward Asia, hoping to strengthen economic, military and diplomatic ties as part of the Obama administration’s strategy to constrain China.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has retreated from that approach in some fundamental ways, walking away from a free trade pact with Pacific nations, launching a global trade war and complaining about the burden of Washington’s security commitments to its closest allies in Asia and other parts of the world.
All the while, China has been discreetly carrying out a far-reaching plan of its own across Latin America. It has vastly expanded trade, bailed out governments, built enormous infrastructure projects, strengthened military ties and locked up tremendous amounts of resources, hitching the fate of several countries in the region to its own.
China made its intentions clear enough back in 2008. In a first-of-its-kind policy paper that drew relatively little notice at the time, Beijing argued that nations in Latin America were “at a similar stage of development” as China, with much to gain on both sides.