World Focus: US pours oil on troubled waters of Falklands row

Click to follow

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has sent another stiff squall through the Falkland Islands by declaring that Britain should be sitting down with Argentina, as it has repeatedly requested, to talk if not about sovereignty then certainly about the appropriateness of companies drilling for oil in the surrounding waters.

Her comments, made during stops in Montevideo, Uruguay, and later Buenos Aires as she continues her Latin America tour, caused shivers both in Port Stanley and in the hallways of the Foreign Office. The British are certain that the exploratory drilling that started last week violates nothing at all, and that there is therefore nothing to talk about with Argentina. And Mrs Clinton knows this. So, at first glance, her remarks in the company of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the Argentine President, were a bit of a slap in the face for the UK.

What was she thinking when she told reporters that the US would like to "see Argentina and the United Kingdom sit down and resolve the issues between them across the table in a peaceful, productive way"? She added: "We recognise that there are contentious matters that have to be resolved and we hope that they will do so."

The drilling is "the right thing to do and is entirely legitimate," a spokesman for Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, retorted. As for Mrs Kirchner's request that the US actually offers to mediate some sort of settlement, No 10 was crisp. "We don't think that's necessary".

It's true that Mrs Kirchner seemed all reasonableness. "That's the only thing we've asked for, just to have them sit down at the table and negotiate. I don't think that's too much, really." Mrs Clinton nodded at this, even though she knows it is too much really from Britain's perspective.

The end of the special relationship this is not, however. Remember that Mrs Clinton was on Latin American soil. She did not make any commitment to mediating. If she did accept the notion that there is a problem that needs talking about, Britain will have to live with it, because the US has its diplomatic priorities too. Mrs Clinton is in South America partly to bolster support for UN sanctions on Iran. Iran is a bit more important to Washington right now.

The Anglo-Argentine spat comes at a sensitive time also. This May, all of Argentina will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the start of a rebellion that eventually led to the eviction of Spanish colonisers from the country, which itself helped to spark the collapse of Spanish rule across the continent. The Falklands issue – or, if you prefer, the Malvinas issue – will be on Argentine minds for many months to come.

Much of Latin America meanwhile has voiced impatience and disappointment with the US, not least over what many governments saw as its limp response to the coup in Honduras last year. Mrs Clinton wants them to believe that Obama's America really is a bit different. This was not the time for the US Secretary of State to be waving the Union flag just because the US and Britain are fast friends. Which they still are, of course.