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China building nuke power plant in Argentina as it expands into South America

Argentina's Atucha II nuclear power plant. (Photo by Mcukilo, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
February 17, 2022

China and Argentina signed a deal earlier this month allowing a Chinese state-owned nuclear power company to begin constructing a nuclear power plant near the capital city of Buenos Aires. The deal is part of China’s larger effort to expand economic access in South America.

China National Nuclear Corporation announced on Feb. 6 that it had signed a deal with Nucleoeléctrica Argentina S.A. The new nuclear power plant, to be called “Atucha III,” will be worth about $8 billion, according to the South China Morning Post.

The deal between the Chinese and Argentine nuclear power companies appears to be part of China’s opening effort to expand its Belt and Road Initiative into South America. Just days after the nuclear power plant deal was signed, Argentine President Alberto Fernandez signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, signifying Argentina’s intent to participate in China’s foreign investment initiative, which funds economic investments in developing countries.

According to the South China Morning Post, Argentina is the first major Latin American country to join on with the Belt and Road Initiative.

While China has characterized its Belt and Road Initiative as a way to build up developing nations while creating mutual benefit for China, U.S. officials have repeatedly raised concerns that the initiative serves more as a debt trap by which China can lend large sums to developing nations and then force them to sign over key assets when they can’t pay down their Chinese debts. For example, Sri Lanka was forced to sign over control of its Hambantota Port in 2017, on a 99-year lease to a Chinese state-run company, after it struggled to pay off debts incurred during the port’s construction.

In addition to the Belt and Road memorandum between China and Argentina, China released a statement on Feb. 6, describing China’s deepening ties with Argentina. That statement included Chinese recognition for Argentina’s claims over the Falkland Islands, also known as the Malvinas Islands.

Argentina and the United Kingdom have disputed ownership of the Falkland Islands as far back as the 1830s. The U.K. holds the islands as part of its sovereign territory, but the Chinese statement says it supports Argentina’s “request to fully exercise its sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands issue, and to resume negotiations as soon as possible in accordance with relevant UN resolutions to resolve the dispute peacefully.”

The Chinese statement sparked concern in the U.K. and U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Tuss tweeted on Feb. 7, “We completely reject any questions over sovereignty of the Falklands. The Falklands are part of the British family and we will defend their right to self determination. China must respect the Falklands’ sovereignty.”

In response to Truss, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao said, “I want to stress that China’s position on the issue of the Malvinas Islands is consistent and clear, and it remains unchanged. We firmly support Argentina’s legitimate claim to sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands. China always maintains that territorial disputes between countries should be resolved through peaceful negotiations in accordance with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK should set an example in abiding by the spirit of the UN Charter and UN resolutions.”