Ensuring the Biden-Fernández Meeting Matters

The planned in-person meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Alberto Fernández is already confronting its first challenge in the wake of Biden’s sudden Covid-19 diagnosis. Yet a more profound risk than the possibility of delays is that the meeting will amount to little more than an empty exchange of protocol, something neither leader can afford. To make this meeting a success, the United States needs to capitalize on two factors: First, the United States should hold Argentina to its stated commitment of being a model for the protection of human rights. Second, the United States should solidify a security relationship consistent with the role Argentina ought to play in the region, and one which will generate spillover benefits for Argentina’s economy. To achieve these goals, some actionable offers Biden can put on the table for Fernández include increasing joint efforts to counter illegal fishing in Argentine waters, opening a shared Antarctic logistics base, and offering U.S.-made fighter jets to the Argentine Air Force.

The meeting comes on the heels of the much-maligned Summit of the Americas, where President Fernández parted ways with other left-leaning presidents in the hemisphere by attending in person. Despite his critical remarks at the summit, Fernández’s contributions should be seen as a welcome assumption of leadership at a time when other leaders chose to abdicate their platforms by boycotting. Beyond the summit, Argentina’s growing global leadership presence was recently validated by its invitation to both the June session of the G7, as well as a BRICS summit that same month.

As the region and the world faces surging challenges from economic instability, food, and energy insecurity, the importance of a close partnership between the United States and Argentina takes on added importance. Indeed, on a seemingly shrinking list of credible partners for Washington in the Western Hemisphere, Argentina stands out.

Argentina is positioned to meet rising energy demand through the development of the Vaca Muerta natural gas formation. Meanwhile, being home to the world’s second-largest lithium reserves—a key component in the manufacture of batteries, especially for electric vehicles—means Argentina’s strategic importance will only grow in light of the global carbon transition. Finally, in the face of spiking food insecurity and hunger driven by tangled supply chains and the spillover effects of war in Ukraine, Argentina, with the requisite infrastructure and potential, is well-positioned to expand its capability to feed the world.

However, the current bilateral relationship does not fully capture the promise of these realities, as it remains marked by a certain hesitancy on the part of both parties as well as recurring setbacks that often stem from misunderstandings on the part of both Washington and Buenos Aires. Accordingly, this meeting presents a rare opportunity to meaningfully revitalize U.S.-Argentina relations, but only if the Biden administration comes prepared with a concrete, bold, and daring agenda.

From Agnostic to Optimistic

Scheduling challenges aside, the first hurdle to be cleared lies in framing the discussion. Here, some may be inclined to write off the U.S.-Argentine relationship with the invocation of ill-timed comments from the Casa Rosada. Yet few leaders in either country can be said to be truly immune to such tendencies, and the United States certainly cannot afford to sideline a robust democracy such as Argentina in an increasingly worrisome neighborhood.

At a time where enthusiasm for democracy is at a some of the lowest levels seen in a decade, Argentina continues to showcase healthy, competitive elections and an active civil society. Argentina’s historical sense for human rights also means the country naturally balks at the abuses carried out by dictatorial governments. Indeed, President Fernández himself articulated this sentiment at the summit, stating, “I come from a humanist country where we consecrate the value of human rights at the heart of our identity, and we will always defend their validity in all areas.”

These words, not the debate over guest lists, should serve as the filter through which the Biden administration approaches its relationship with Argentina. It should do so recognizing the shared values both countries hold. Accordingly, the Biden-Fernández meeting represents an opportunity to have a constructive dialogue about how to best address the pressing human rights concerns in the hemisphere. Settling on this agenda item should be straightforward, it is clear where in the region the critical cases lie.

To this end, Argentina can raise a clear and credible voice on civil and political rights issues in important fora such as the BRICS and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) where it could articulate a human rights posture aligned with the United States. A renewed U.S.-Argentina understanding on human rights protection would therefore also signal an important change in policy towards the region’s worst offenders, including the deteriorating example of Venezuela (on which Fernández has misspoken in the past), the most salient example of Nicaragua, and the enduring example of Cuba.

Setting the Agenda

For the meeting to prove successful, the United States will have to come prepared with more than just a rhetorical commitment to closer cooperation and diplomatic niceties. Instead, Biden should be willing to place a full package of security cooperation activities on the table during Fernández’s visit. The following proposals will likely catch the Argentine president by surprise, but he should find plenty of meaty offers to consider. He will be surprised by the substance and weight of the discussion.

Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

The first area where both countries would greatly benefit from a stronger partnership is in the realm of maritime security and countering illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. From 2018 to early 2021, more than 800 foreign vessels, the majority belonging to China’s deep-water fleet, went “dark” near Argentina’s Exclusive Economic Zone, turning off their identification systems to fish illegally in Argentine waters. While IUU fishing is often couched in terms of national sovereignty, the practice has tangible economic consequences as well. Commercial fishing is a multi-billion-dollar industry and accounts for about 3.4 percent of Argentina’s GDP. The hundreds of thousands of hours of unreported fishing cut into legitimate revenues, and on a broader scale imperil the sustainability of Argentina’s fishing sector with potentially debilitating long-run consequences.

Building Partnerships

Joint efforts to combat the prevalence of IUU fishing present a natural area of convergence between U.S. and Argentine interests. In particular, the United States could formalize a host nation rider program wherein Argentine personnel would serve aboard U.S. Coast Guard and Navy vessels, as well as aerial platforms, in the South Atlantic. These programs have a number of benefits, generating trust, enhancing capabilities, and improving interoperability between U.S. and partner nation forces. Within the region, the deployment of host nation riders, coordinated through the Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JITAF-South) has become a key element of U.S. narcotics interdiction strategy. Meanwhile, the United States Coast Guard currently maintains 16 fisheries law enforcement ship rider agreements with Pacific Island and West African nations. Combined, the United States has a wealth of best practices to draw upon for building a counter-IUU fishing program with Argentina.

Other initiatives to be considered include reserving and expanding billets for Argentine personnel at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Providing foreign personnel the opportunity to study at U.S. service academies is another way of building durable relationships that continue to pay dividends over the course of attendees’ careers. Finally, the United States should propose joint maritime law enforcement patrols or training exercises to Argentina. These would not only enhance the ability of both countries to crack down on IUU fishing, but serve as an important reset in the security cooperation relationship following the 2021 incident in which a U.S. Coast Guard cutter was denied dock service in Argentina following joint exercises in the region.

Cooperation in the Antarctic

Another area for the United States to consider is closer cooperation with Argentina in and around Antarctica. Argentina has long desired a major southern base from which to supply its Antarctic research stations. This March, the Ministry of Defense laid the first stone at what is expected to be such a logistics hub on the Ushuaia Peninsula. The base has in the past raised alarms in Washington over the possibility that strategic competitors such as China or Russia could use it to gain a foothold in the South Atlantic. Such a prospect would not only place potential rival forces close to U.S. interests in Antarctica as well as the critical maritime corridor around the Straights of Magellan.

At his meeting with President Fernández, Biden should be clear-eyed on the matter of the Ushuaia base and moderate past reservations by offering a U.S.-Argentine partnership that would include joint construction and operation of this facility. Energetically supporting such a project is in the United States’ best interests. It would allow the United States to keep out potential competitors, further secure the South Atlantic against hostile encroachments, and improve ease of access to the United States’ own Antarctic research facilities. Furthermore, the lessons learned from collaborating with Argentina in Ushuaia may prove valuable as the United States turns northward to the Arctic Circle, where tensions long simmering have been exacerbated by Russia’s expanded military presence there.

Fighter Jets and Force Modernization

The final, and perhaps most urgent issue where Biden could cause a sea change in U.S.-Argentina security relations concerns efforts by the Argentine Air Force (FAA) to modernize its fighter wing. This procurement process has suffered numerous setbacks, first as the United Kingdom vetoed several potential options from Spanish surplus Mirage F1Ms to Korean FA-50s. For a time, Russia appeared a serious contender, undercutting the Chinese-Pakistani offer of JF-17s, though the invasion of Ukraine appears to have decisively shuttered that offer. Recently, the JF-17 has returned as a frontrunner, with a delegation from the Argentine Air Force recently traveling to Islamabad and Beijing on a study visit.

An Argentine Air Force sporting JF-17s would be a significant political victory for China. To avert this scenario, Biden should offer Fernández the sale of U.S. F-16 fighter jets or reasonable alternatives to Argentina. Currently there is a golden opportunity for Washington to make such an offer, as Denmark is seeking to offload six F-16s as its air force transitions to the F-35. These jets were originally earmarked for Colombia, but with the newly elected Petro administration likely to shelve such an initiative, Argentina could rise to the top of the list. Even in the absence of the Danish F-16s the United States should make a determined, and rapid, effort to meet Argentina’s request for jets from its own stocks of fourth-generation aircraft. Doing so would not only enhance the capabilities of the Argentine Air Force but strengthen interoperability with the United States and befit the country’s major non-NATO ally status.

Each of these proposals will likely meet resistance from various corners, with a particularly vehement response reserved for the United Kingdom. The United States will have to employ top diplomatic skills, and more than a little elbow grease, to redefine the Argentine security relationship while balancing the United Kingdom’s historical concerns. In doing so, the United States should acknowledge that the Fernández government’s rhetoric has unfortunately contributed to what may be perceived as an increase in tensions over the South Atlantic.

The United States’ allies in London should be made to realize, however, that what is sought is a delicate balance. Closing the door on security cooperation will not assuage these concerns, and indeed will in all likelihood push Argentina closer to China. Such an outcome is not only more strategically dangerous, but also gives China further bandwidth to promote its more inflammatory stance on the Falklands/Malvinas dispute. Accordingly, the United States and allies have to ask themselves whether the preservation of a possibly dated view of Argentina weaponizing the South Atlantic is truly worth opening the door to greater Chinese incursion by means of illegal fishing, Antarctic bases, and arms sales.

If the United States believes Argentina can be a keystone country in the hemisphere in delicate times, and if the Biden administration is looking for this meeting to open a deeper partnership with Fernández, it is high time to put these beliefs into action with a bold, ambitious, substantive agenda worthy of a call to attention.

Juan O. Cruz is the director of the Argentina-U.S. Strategic Forum and a non-resident senior adviser in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Henry Ziemer is program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Americas Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Juan Cruz
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Director, Argentina-U.S. Strategic Forum