The Argentine ambassador to the U.S. on Thursday denounced a Florida Republican’s comments on alleged Chinese military involvement in the South American country, calling the remarks “inaccurate” and “offensive.”
In a letter to Rep. María Elvira Salazar, Ambassador Jorge Argüello lashed out at the lawmaker, who at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday accused Argentina of joining other Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia in giving China a military foothold in the Americas.
“Some of the remarks that you made at that meeting are not only clearly inaccurate but are also offensive,” Argüello wrote.
Salazar, who chairs the Western Hemisphere subcommittee within Foreign Affairs, warned about a growing Chinese presence, accusing Argentina of playing host to its regional aspiration.
“We know the Chinese are not here for trade, they are here for war,” Salazar said.
Argüello pushed back against the idea of Chinese military presence in his country.
“First of all, I would like to emphasize that there is no infrastructure or military presence of an extra-regional power in Argentina, with the exception of the one that corresponds to the illegal occupation of the Malvinas Islands by the United Kingdom,” wrote Argüello, referencing Argentina’s claim to what are known in English as the Falkland Islands, over which Argentina and the United Kingdom fought a brief war in 1982.
At the hearing Tuesday, Salazar also said Argentina was considering building a Chinese jet fighter factory in its territory and warned of a Chinese space installation in the country.
Argüello pushed back against both those claims, calling the jet fighter factory accusation “absurd,” and comparing the space communications station, run jointly by China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control Center General (CLTC) and the Argentine Space Agency (CONAE), to a nearby project run with the European Space Agency (ESA).
Argentina is currently looking to update its supersonic fighter fleet following the 2015 retirement of the last of its Dassault Mirage III interceptor fighters, which were active in the Falkland Islands War.
The country is considering buying either used U.S.-made F-16 fighters from Denmark, the Indian LCA Tejas or the Chinese-Pakistani Chengdu-PAC JF-17 Thunder, according to a report from Air Data News.
Argüello wrote Salazar that the supply of jet fighters available to Argentina is “very narrowly reduced” because of British sanctions on the country related to the 1982 war.
“I would like to draw your attention to a very specific obstacle to the acquisition and operation of combat aircraft manufactured by the United States and allied countries, for which the United States Congress’ collaboration would be valuable,” Argüello wrote.
“Taking into account that these aircraft contain parts of British origin, the United Kingdom exercises an unjustified veto that prevents any transaction whatsoever with our country.”
A congressional aide familiar with the debate pushed back on Argüello’s claim, saying the U.K. veto would not apply to U.S.-made F-16 planes or other options such as the Teja. The British veto played a part in ending talks in 2015 between Argentina and a Swedish company, Saab, to buy Gripen fighters, said the aide.
“[It’s] a hallmark of Argentine Peronist politics that the ambassador represents — the current party in power — is being anti-U.K., so it’s fairly standard on a letter like this to have language against the U.K.,” said the aide.
Argüello also defended the Chinese deep space tracking station that’s been running since 2018 on land leased to China in 2012 on a 50-year lease, and promised Salazar further information on the project.
Two provinces in western Argentina are generally considered prime real estate for such stations, in part because of their arid weather, lack of radio interference and stable geological conditions.
CONAE and the ESA have operated a deep space tracking station in the region since 2012 that serves a similar stated purpose as the joint venture with China.
“[I]t has exactly the same characteristics as the one operated by the European Space Agency located in our country, less than 300 miles from it,” wrote Argüello.
“The problem is that Argentina has no idea what’s going on there because the Chinese don’t let them in,” Salazar said at the hearing.
In response to Salazar’s question on the installation, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink responded, “Perhaps it would be more appropriate in a classified session.”
U.S. officials have in the past raised concerns about the station, though by its stated purpose it serves the Chinese space agency as a relay to deep-space projects like the probe China landed on the far side of the Moon in 2019.
But Salazar said Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner “sold her soul” by allowing the Chinese space installation in the country.
Fernández de Kirchner is a controversial figure in Argentina and in Latin American politics as a whole. She was president of the country from 2007 to 2015 before joining current President Alberto Fernández’s ticket in 2019 amid heavy criticism and allegations of corruption.
Fernández de Kirchner and Fernández are not related; Fernández de Kirchner is currently appealing a six-year prison sentence she received in 2022 as part of a billion-dollar fraud case.
Despite the conviction, Fernández de Kirchner is not serving her sentence because of immunity tied to her office.
Argüello panned Salazar for attacking Fernández de Kirchner in her role as Argentina’s vice president.
“Offensive, insulting references to the highest authorities of a free and sovereign country since 1810 and a friend of the United States do not, under any circumstances, contribute to a better understanding and greater proximity; rather, quite the contrary,” Argüello wrote.