In May 2017, reports came in that China and Argentina had signed a nuclear cooperation between each other. According to the agreement, China would supply two nuclear reactors to Argentina- one would be a pressurised heavy water reactor (PWHR) based in CANDU reactor given China’s expertise with the CANDU reactors and the other a pressurised water reactor (PWR).
The projects are valued to be $15billion with China having made a contribution of 85% of the required financing. All these developments comes as no surprise as in 2013 an agreement was signed between the two countries to cooperate on reactor pressure tubes, that include engineering and fabrication as also operations and maintenance and technology transfers of Chinese technology to Argentina. In 2015, China was reported to have invested $4.7billion in Argentina’s nuclear programme.
At the moment, Argentina has three nuclear reactors generating one tenth of its electricity. China Argentina nuclear cooperation would further increase domestic production of electricity and reduce the cost of the same as a result. As stated by the economy minister of Argentina, Axel Kicillof, the deal would provide Argentina with “competiveness.”
However, nuclear cooperation between Argentina and China to for another PWHR is a concern as Argentina could use the spent fuel generated from the PWHR to reprocess the same to produce plutonium that can be used to produce nuclear weapons. At the moment though, Argentina has the policy of storing its spent fuel in wet and dry storages.
Argentina is a member of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and so is China. In the 1990s, both Argentina and Brazil also formally renounced the manufacture nuclear weapons programme and would concentrate on peaceful nuclear energy programme. However, it must be noted that prior to 1990, Argentina has pursued covert nuclear weapons programme. Argentina has also not signed the Additional Protocol to its Safeguard Agreement of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that allows the IAEA to inspect nuclear facilities of signatory countries.
NPT allows countries to utilise nuclear energy for military purposes other than developing nuclear weapons. Apparently, Argentina had ventured into a project on nuclear submarine program with conventional weapons. Argentina can use the PWR that it would receive from China to power its nuclear submarine.
China’s nuclear industry is flourishing and it has already ventured into South American market to gain hard currency. China National Nuclear Cooperation (CNNC) that was involved in nuclear cooperation with Argentina has since 2013, concentrated on “exploration of global market” that not only includes Asia but also South America. But China has competition from Russia. Russia and Argentina also signed nuclear cooperation agreement between each other.
China has had record of providing nuclear technologies to countries which are neighbours to countries that China does not share very cordial relations with. It has provided Pakistan that borders India with nuclear technology. In April 2017, Argentine President Mauricio Macri has also gone to the extent of saying that Argentina “barely has relations with the USA anymore.” On the other hand, Macri has termed China as a “strategic partner” in May 2017. China did not spare any scope to grab this opportunity to further strengthen its relations with Argentina. Not only this, Argentina is also going to be a part of China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI). In fact, the nuclear energy cooperation is also a component of China’s BRI.
While the BRI is claimed by China to foster economic development in the regions, many view certain initiatives BRI to have military implications also providing easier access to Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. For instance, a strengthened relation with Argentina could provide China a base in Argentina that could prove detrimental to US security.
China’s intrusion into the Argentinian market, in fact China’s influence in the Latin American market would only reduce US influence in the region further. This would not be conducive for the United States that have Latin American countries as its neighbours. A growing Chinese influence in its neighbourhood would seriously undermine US strategic interests and security.
Amid these growing concerns, the only respite is that Argentina is a signatory to the NPT as mentioned above and at present adhering to non-proliferation standards as reported by the IAEA.