South Atlantic: the role and regional security faced with the projection and construction of power by the United States and China


The South Atlantic region is internationally relevant not only because of the large reserves of strategic natural resources that it possesses, but also because of its proximity to Antarctica, the existence of the bi-oceanic canal, current and future demands in the area of ​​transportation and international trade, as well as the access to aerospace projection and cyberspace, among others. These aspects are valued both by the sovereign countries of the region and by international economic and military powers such as the United States and the People’s Republic of China, who have incorporated the South American region into their foreign policy planning, with conflicting interests between these actors.

On the one hand, Latin America has historically been considered by the United States as a space of influence and as an important part of its process of designing doctrines and actions related to its territorial security, incorporating Antarctica, as of Global Trends 2035, as a space relevant to their interests and those of the world. On the other hand, during the last 15 years, the People’s Republic of China has been increasing its diplomatic ties with Latin American countries (through hundreds of agreements in economic, socio-cultural and, to a lesser extent, military matters) and has included Antarctica and the South American South Atlantic as an area of ​​interest for its political project to the year 2049.

In this context, these two extra-regional powers have been competing in different spheres and spaces for which specialists, such as the American political scientist Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard University, proposed (through the so-called “Thucydides Trap”) a potential large-scale showdown. Therefore, it is possible to think that the existing interdependence in the international arena and the practices that are developed in it may involve the South Atlantic region of Latin America due to the opposing interests of both powers in the region.

In this sense, this article analyzes the conception, doctrine and actions that both the United States and the People’s Republic of China have been carrying out in the South American South Atlantic area, including their projection for the coming years. Additionally, the diplomatic trajectory of the region is analyzed, conceived as a zone of peace, under the principles that govern the international community, which is presented as the best security strategy beyond the positions and particular interests regarding the global powers.

The South Atlantic and the game of actors with global power

Many analysts and academics agree that the South Atlantic area has and will continue to play a leading role in international politics and in the planning of the foreign policy of the world’s main economic and military powers. About this, Sergio Eissa, Doctor in Political Science from the National University of San Martin, states that there is an important geostrategic area that includes Patagonia, the South Atlantic, the Malvinas, Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, as well as Antarctica, where everything is inter-related and where there are actors who act according to their interests. For example, in 2020, the United States published a directive to incorporate military capabilities that allow it to operate in the Arctic and Antarctica. Therefore, he emphasizes that in Antarctica the Treaty does not have an expiration date; However, what does expire is the Madrid Protocol on the exploitation of resources.[1]

Likewise, Dr. Eissa points out that – currently – Great Britain can project power over the Drake Passage, Antarctica, the South Atlantic and the Argentine mainland, which represents a clear threat to that country. This idea is complemented by Luciano Anzelini, PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Buenos Aires, who states that Latin America is emerging as a field both of dispute over access to natural resources and of projection of the influence of China, Russia and United States, emphasizing that the existence of a colonial enclave in the Falkland Islands, with a significant British military force deployed there, cannot be lost sight of. Therefore, according to Dr. Anzelini, this situation should be considered in any calculation of international security and defense, given its strategic importance in terms of Atlantic and Antarctic projection.[2] In this sense, Jorge Battaglino, Doctor in Latin American Politics from the University of Essex, also points out that the main defense problem that Argentina has is the existence of a British military base in the Malvinas Islands, in a context characterized by a an increasingly turbulent world, an ongoing competition for hegemony and an increasing importance of natural resources.[3]

Additionally, it is important to consider the ambitions and objectives of the People’s Republic of China to achieve international hegemony and leadership in different regions, including Latin America and Antarctica. Referring to the white continent, the Asian country arrived in Antarctica in 1985 and by 2013 it had already identified the polar areas as its new strategic frontiers. Since then, China has invested a large amount of resources to develop new bases (in 2014 it already had its fourth base and began to build the fifth), install means of transport and deploy logistics agreements (such as the Antarctic Agreement signed with Argentina in 2017) in order to increase its presence on the continent.[4]

Consequently, there are two international actors with great leadership and influence that have been increasing their presence and participation in the region, on the one hand the United States (individually and through NATO) and on the other hand the People’s Republic of China. In the first case, hard power operates through the presence of Great Britain in the Falkland Islands, who consolidated its physical position in the region after the end of the 1982 War, allowing it to carry out any type of activity that it considers sovereign in this territory beyond any international claim presented by Argentine diplomacy. Faced with this situation, the different efforts of the Argentine government have not stopped claiming from international organizations what they consider to be their sovereign rights over these lands. While in the second case, soft power operates through the heavy investments made by the People’s Republic of China in all the countries of the region, creating a very close relationship of dependency.

Why is the United States redefining its framework for action in Latin America?

It is important to highlight that, during the 20th century, Latin America was part of the interests of the United States, which was reflected in its main security doctrines and in specific policies within South American countries such as, for example, the Doctrine of National Security from alliances with social, political, economic and military sectors of the different countries of the region that adopted and promoted US interests indoors. Aspects that seem to revive with another international conjuncture – with the emerging Chinese power mainly – and with new dynamics, but with the same essence than more than a century

In this regard, Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, Doctor in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University, enriches the scenario by exposing the change in ideological and political direction of the United States, during the last decade, under the validity -again- of the Monroe Doctrine, but now in order to prevent the advance of the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China in Latin America. In this sense, Dr. Tokatlian states that in 2018, in an address at the University of Texas just before a trip to Latin America, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted the validity of the Monroe Doctrine with the emphasis placed on stopping China’s progress in the region as it implied a form of “long-term dependency” for Latin America.[5]

The United States -unlike China- has been bringing a certain reputation and historical trajectory in Latin America, which it considers since the presidency of Monroe (1823) as a relevant space for its national security, so it would not allow the intervention of a power extra-regional in this area, among other issues.[6] The rhetoric of this national security justified the design of strategies at a high cost to reinforce the economic, military and political structure of the “free world”[7]; which was translated into cooperation agreements, alliances, foreign assistance and large-scale military interventions.[8]

In this sense, it is worth referring to a realistic concept of alliance, expressed by Hans Morgenthau, which reflects part of the essence of the new guidelines of the extra-regional powers regarding the function of the balance of power within the multi-state system: “In competing with each other, nations A and B have three options in terms of maintaining or improving their relative positions of power. They can increase their own power, they can add to their own power that of other nations, or they can prevent other nations from lending their power to the adversary. If they decide on the first option, they embark on an arms race. If they opt for the second or third alternative, they must resort to the alliance policy” [9]

This last concept is applicable for the reading of the alliances that China and the United States have been carrying out in Latin America and, in turn, the new actions that they will potentially begin to develop with different purposes: to obtain support from international organizations to legitimize their plans, influence national and international public opinion, try to contain the actions of its adversary, gain accessions with sectors of national and regional powers, as well as access physical strategic spaces, among others.

An example of this is that China, which through its multidimensional alliance with Argentina -increased since 2002- has managed to access, among other things, internationally relevant geostrategic spaces such as the installation of the aerospace power plant in Neuquén, the Antarctic Agreement or the progressive incorporation of the South American country to the Land and Sea Silk Road Project, just to mention a few. Consequently, this agreement has allowed it to have comparative and unique advantages within this geographical space.

It is important to add that Argentina, like its peers with greater geographical proximity, is a protagonist in the South Atlantic due to its geostrategic location since this sector has great advantages such as its proximity to the Antarctic area and scientific activities in it, as well as a large continental shelf that – after recognition by the UN – was expanded in 2018, facilitating access and control in the area.

Latin America in the face of the growing presence of extra-regional powers

It is important to note that both extra-territorial economic and military powers are in the process of building a new power and leadership in this area of ​​the Southern Cone whose principles are the non-proliferation of nuclear activities and is declared as a zone of peace. This does not limit the conduct of the more developed countries, which in most cases have conflicting interests in what they consider to be the need to make the South Atlantic area their zone of influence. In this sense, Robert Keohane clarifies the scenario with the concept of hegemony understood as a system in which a State is powerful enough to maintain the essential rules that govern inter-state relations, being willing to do so.[10]

This concept is clearly present within the strategic planning of both China and the United States, so at the Latin American strategic level the concept proposed by Alexander Wendt, who defines the cooperative security system, should take on greater prominence, stating that “States identify themselves positively among them and thus safety is perceived as everyone’s responsibility. This is not self-help in an interested sense, since the self in terms of which interests are defined is the community; national interests are international ”[11]

This last concept is valid to indicate that beyond the ideological proximity between the countries of the region and / or the existing differences referred to different regional and international problems, history and the present expose a shared view regarding security that should be sustained in the future. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that States must think systemically when defining both the strategies that they will develop and those that will be executed by world powers, according to two levels (internal conditions and foreign policy).

Juan Gabriel Tokatlián and Roberto Russell enrich this view with the concept of “relational autonomy” that would constitute the capacity and disposition of States to make decisions with others independently and to jointly control the processes that occur within and beyond their borders.[12] In this way, taking the aforementioned autonomy as a reference, a shared Latin American vision should be built regarding the national and regional interests and objectives of the countries of the Southern Cone in relation to Chinese and US strategies, having as antecedents and pillars not only the strong tradition in favor of international law in part as to prevent war and a potential intervention of extra-regional powers (in all dimensions and not only the military one), but also the promotion and defense of principles such as the non-transfer of territories, the non-intervention, non-recognition of territorial conquests, the use of morality in international relations, equality between States, respect and promotion of sovereignty, among others.[13] In this way, these pillars should be further consolidated in spaces of exchange and institutional cooperation that make up the so-called international society in the South Atlantic area.

Final thoughts

In this interconnected world, any rivalry and conflict that could potentially arise between the great world powers in the Southern Cone region of Latin America will undoubtedly affect the countries of the region to a greater or lesser extent depending on the degree of autonomy and dependence they have in relation to China and / or the United States. Consequently, the challenges that a good part of the Latin American countries will face are great, so it is highly relevant to plan and implement systemic and comprehensive strategies that represent national and regional interests under the principles of international society already mentioned against the advancement of the interests and objectives of the powerful extra-regional states.

This last statement does not imply international isolation or direct confrontation with the United States and / or China, but rather raises the need to establish within foreign policy and national and regional defense an intelligent and necessary balance between the conservation of autonomy and obtaining comparative advantages by establishing certain links with the countries that establish a certain world order.


  1. Sergio Eissa, “No se internaliza que el Atlántico Sur es relevante geoestratégicamente y que eso define el diseño del instrumento militar,” Zona Militar (Febraury 12, 2021),
  2. Luciano Anzelini, “ El Atlántico Sur ha tomado una centralidad inusitada para Washington y Beijing,” Zona Militar (March 03, 2021),
  3. Jorge Battaglino, “El principal problema de defensa que tiene la Argentina es la existencia de una base militar británica en nuestras Islas Malvinas,” Zona Militar (April 09, 2021),
  4. María Ana Leal, Hechizo chino. Construcción de poder en Argentina y América Latina (Editorial ALMALUZ, 2021), 245-246.
  5. Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, “La geopolítica entre EEUU y China,” El Cohete a la Luna (May 03, 2020),
  6. Ernesto López, “Doctrinas militares en Argentina: 1932-1980,” in La reforma militar (Buenos Aires: Legasa,1985), ed. Carlos Coneta, Ernesto López and Aníbal Romero, 25-26.
  7. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Poder e Interdependencia: La política mundial en transición (Buenos Aires: GEL, 1989), 19
  8. Ibíd.
  9. Hans Morgenthau, Política entre las Naciones. La lucha por el poder y la paz (1948), 224.
  10. Robert Keohane, Después de la hegemonía: Cooperación y discordia en la política económica mundial (Buenos Aires: GEL, 1998), 44.
  11. Alexander Wendt, “La anarquía es lo que los estados hacen de ella. La construcción social de la política del poder,” Revista Académica de Relaciones Internacionales (no.1, march 2005).
  12. Roberto Russell y Juan G. Tokatlian, “De la autonomía antagónica a la autonomía relacional: una mirada teórica desde el Cono Sur,” Postdata (no. 7, 2001), 86-91.
  13. Arie Kacowicz, “América Latina como Sociedad Internacional: Una Variación Grociana del Orden Regional y de la Comunidad,” Puente Europa (2005), 25-29.


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The ideas contained in this analysis are the sole responsibility of the author, without necessarily reflecting the thoughts of the CEEEP or the Peruvian Army.

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