The Economic Times – 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 isolated base 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.
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.
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 U.S. Army War College.
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 freetrade 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.
Even with parts of Latin America shifting to the right politically in recent years, its leaders have tailored their policies to fulfill China’s demand. Now Beijing’s dominance in much of the region — and what it means for America’s waning stature — is starting to come into sharp focus.
“It’s a fait accompli,” said Diego Guelar, Argentina’s ambassador to China.
Trade between China and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean reached $244 billion last year, more than twice what it was a decade earlier, according to Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center. Since 2015, China has been South America’s top trading partner, eclipsing the United States.
Perhaps more significantly, China has issued tens of billions of dollars in commodities-backed loans across the Americas, giving it claim over a large share of the region’s oil — including nearly 90 percent of Ecuador’s reserves — for years.
China has also made itself indispensable by rescuing embattled governments and vital state-controlled companies in countries like Venezuela and Brazil, willing to make big bets to secure its place in the region.
Here in Argentina, a nation that had been shut out of international credit markets for defaulting on about $100 billion in bonds, China became a godsend for then-President Cristina Fernández.
And while it was extending a helping hand, China began the secret negotiations that led to the satellite and space control station here in Patagonia.
Argentine officials say the Chinese have agreed not to use the base for military purposes. But experts contend that the technology on it has many strategic uses.
Frank A. Rose, an assistant secretary of state for arms control during the Obama administration, said he spent much of his time worrying about China’s budding space program. U.S. intelligence and defense officials watched with alarm as China developed sophisticated technology to jam, disrupt and destroy satellites in recent years, he said.
“They are deploying these capabilities to blunt American military advantages, which are in many ways derived from space,” Rose said.
Antennas and other equipment that support space missions, like the kind China now has here in Patagonia, can increase China’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, experts say.
Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. military officials were assessing the implications of the Chinese monitoring station. Chinese officials declined requests for interviews about the base and their space program.
Beyond any strategic contest with the United States, some leaders in Latin America are now having doubts and regrets about their ties to China, worried that past governments have saddled their nations with enormous debt and effectively sold out their futures.
But Guelar argued that hitting the brakes on engagement with China would be shortsighted, particularly at a time when Washington has given up its long-standing role as the region’s political and economic anchor.
“There has been an abdication” of leadership by the United States, he said. “It surrendered that role not because it lost it, but because it doesn’t wish to take it on.”
The Argentine government was in crisis mode in 2009. Inflation was high. Billions of dollars in debt payments were coming due. Anger was swelling over the government, including its decision to nationalize $30 billion in private pension funds. And the worst drought in five decades was making the economic situation even bleaker.
Enter China. First, it struck a $10.2 billion currency swap deal that helped stabilize the Argentine peso, and then promised to invest $10 billion to fix the nation’s dilapidated rail system.
In the middle of all this, China also dispatched a team to Argentina to discuss Beijing’s ambitions in space.
The Chinese wanted a satellite-tracking hub on the other side of the globe before the launch of an expedition to the far side of the moonIf successful, the mission, scheduled to launch this year, will be a milestone in space exploration, potentially paving the way for the extraction of helium 3, which some scientists believe could provide a revolutionary clean source of energy.
China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, a division of the country’s armed forces, settled on this windswept 494-acre patch in Argentina’s Neuquén province.
Flanked by mountains and far from population centers, the site offered an ideal vantage point for Beijing to monitor satellites and space missions around the clock.
Félix Clementino Menicocci, secretary-general of Argentina’s National Space Activities Commission, a government agency, said the Chinese had pitched officials with promises of economic development and the prospect of enabling a history-making endeavor.
“They’ve become major players in space in the span of a few years,” Menicocci said of China’s space program.
After months of secret negotiations, Neuquén province and the Chinese government signed a deal in November 2012, giving China the right to the land — rent free — for 50 years.
When provincial lawmakers caught wind of the project after construction was underway, some were aghast. Betty Kreitman, a lawmaker in Neuquén at the time, said she was outraged that the Chinese military was being allowed to set up a base on Argentine soil.
“Surrendering sovereignty in your own country is shameful,” Kreitman said.
When she visited the construction site, she said, she pressed Chinese officials for answers but walked away feeling even more concerned.
“This is a window to the world,” she recalled the Chinese supervisor at the site saying. “It gave me chills. What do you do with a window to the world? Spy on reality.”
Ellis said the Chinese had also probably pursued relationships with Latin American nations with an eye toward any possible confrontation with the US.
“China is positioning itself in a world that is safe for the rise of China,” he said. “If you’re talking about the 2049 world, from the perspective of Latin America, China will have unquestionably surpassed the United States on absolute power and size. Frankly, if it was a matter of sustained conflict, you reach a point where you can’t deny the possibility of Chinese forces operating from bases in the region.”
Written by Ernesto Londoño