By W. T. Whitney Jr.

Aug. 9, 2018

Neuquén Province is part of Argentina’s Patagonia region. The capitol city Neuquén, population 340,000, lies 710 miles southwest of Buenos Aires. New installations taking shape in that semi-arid region, one belonging to the United States and the other to China, have provoked local opposition. In both instances, critics point to their potential use for making war. Somehow each one is conceived of as serving national interests.


These of course differ and in Neuquén the two nations are surely acting according to opposed concepts of foreign intervention.


A U.S. military base on the outskirts of Neuquén city is the newest arrival. In late June a local coalition made up of 60 labor, political, and social organizations began demonstrations against “the imminent installation of a U.S. base in Neuquén [being] presented deceitfully as something humanitarian.” The base, now under construction, is on the road to Vaca Muerta (Dead Cow).


The name refers to an area of 11,583 square miles extending across several provinces in the Pampas that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration  “has world-class shale gas and shale oil potential – possibly the most prospective outside of North America – primarily within the Neuquén Basin.” (Emphasis added) The Apache, EOG, ExxonMobil, TOTAL, YPF, and other corporations are carrying out exploration programs and are beginning commercial production.   Buenos Aires’s Clarin newspaper reported that, “Global investment … will exceed $100 billion in equipment and structures over the next 10 years. U.S. companies will be providing most of that money.

The base will cost $2 million. U.S. embassy spokespersons say American troops will be helping out with natural disasters. Provincial officials, however, identify the installation as a military base, and Argentina’s government is cooperating. Some of its troops will be transferred to the Neuquén area where, according to a military spokesperson, they “will … be able to move immediately in case of eventual conflict in the region, especially in the petroleum zone.”


Official spokespersons cite possible dangers from left wing governments in the region and labor actions. Opposition sentiment in Neuquén has it that soldiers are “ready to be fully activated in the event of uprisings by workers and people who may want to reclaim for themselves the production of [natural] gas and petroleum.”


Other U.S. bases are on the way in Argentina. One in Misiones, in the North near the “Triple Border” with Brazil and Paraguay, supposedly will be dealing with narco-trafficking and terrorism. Another in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego allegedly will be hosting scientific research.  A U.S. base projected for Jujuy province, in northwestern Argentina, is close to massive deposits of lithium.


There is of course a context. According to one observer, the “United States has approximately 800 formal military bases in 80 countries, [and] only 11 other countries have bases in foreign countries, some 70 altogether,” almost half of them Russian bases in former Soviet Bloc nations.


A Chinese satellite tracking and space telemetry station has been operational since early 2017 in Bajada del Agrio (population 800), a town located 156 miles northwest of Neuquén city.   The station located on 518 acres “contains steerable parabolic  antennas 13.5 and 35 meters in diameter, computer and engineering facilities, lodgings for staff, and a $10 million … electric power plant.” China with no comparable facilities beyond its borders has insisted that the installation’s sole purpose is “deep space exploration.”


The government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in 2013-14 negotiated a 50-year tax-free lease for the Chinese installation. The political opposition in Argentina has complained of danger to national sovereignty, secret terms with undisclosed payments, and exclusion of Argentinean personnel and input in the project.


The Chinese embassy in Buenos Aires released information saying that the station in Neuquén will be instrumental in sending a satellite to and around the moon for mapping purposes, landing a probe or robot on the lunar surface to investigate rocks there, and returning a robot to earth with collected information. There are long term plans to investigate Mars.


There are indications, however, as to possible military use for the facility.  The China Launch and Satellite Tracking Control agency responsible for its operation “is a unit of the General Armaments Department of the China’s People’s Liberation Army.”  Its location directly south of the U.S. capitol “is in line with geostationary satellites servicing the American east coast.”


Roberto García Moritán was the lead Argentinean negotiator for the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, adopted in 2013. He remarked in 2016 that, “[T]he antennas and the telemetry” at the Chinese installation “have dual use. This antenna will have the capacity to interfere with communications, electronic networks, electromagnetic systems; it has the capacity for receiving information about the launching of missiles and other space activities, including of drones, and movement of strategic arms. It has the capacity to collect information of enormous sensitivity in the eventuality of a military competition.”


China’s presence in Patagonia became news in the United States recently due a New York Times report that emphasizes Chinese economic and trade pretentions in the region. It downplays possible military objectives of the space installation: it’s “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.”


The report’s main thrust is that Latin American and Caribbean governments, stressed by serious economic travails, have looked to China for rescue and are finding it. The space station in Neuquén thus shapes up as payback, and “since 2015, China has been South America’s top trading partner.”


The New York Times, focused on jostling among nations and personalities, reported that, as regards the U.S. base in Neuquén, “Local officials and residents wondered whether the move was a tit-for-tat response to China’s new presence in this remote part of the country.”


Unsurprisingly, the reporting on U.S. and Chinese projects in Neuquén Province steers clear of items that concern human survival as opposed to national interest. Nuclear war is the loose cannon in a room where land and space warfare is being discussed. And assumptions underlying stories about oil and gas availability and about world trade in the service of unbounded consumerism absolutely ignore the dire threat posed by climate change.