Leading article: Argentinian signals that must not be misread

Once the anniversary of the war is past, there is a strong case for starting talks
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The Independent Online

Landmark anniversaries of the Falklands War inevitably increase tensions between Britain and Argentina, and it would have been unrealistic to expect the 30th to be an exception. But it would also be unwise to interpret recent Argentinian statements as tantamount to aggressive acts. The significance of this week's announcement by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, that Argentina is to complain to the United Nations about British "militarisation" around the disputed islands, should not be exaggerated.

Ms Kirchner was addressing a commemorative meeting that included a large number of 1982 military veterans. The Falklands War, it hardly needs to be stressed on either side of the Atlantic, was a conflict that Argentina both initiated and lost. It remains a painful episode in that country's history – and, it might well be said from the British perspective, so it should. But military defeats are never easily borne, even one that precipitated the fall of a military junta and the advent of democracy. Seen through an Argentinian prism, Ms Kirchner's talk of going to the United Nations might be seen as the least she could do.

Something similar might be said of recent decisions on the British side. The recovery of the Falkland Islands is one of the last military exploits that Britain can justly celebrate. To dispatch a task force halfway around the world and force the Argentinian surrender was a remarkable, if costly and perhaps questionable feat. Not to mark the achievement in any way would have been as impossible as it would have been foolish not to recognise that the anniversary might tempt Argentina to some misguided course of action.

Concerned not to be caught out, as the Thatcher government was, the Coalition has sent a state-of-the-art destroyer, HMS Dauntless, to patrol the waters off the Falklands. The Duke of Cambridge recently arrived there on a temporary assignment as a search-and-rescue pilot. Neither move would be capable of thwarting determined Argentinian aggression. Both are largely symbolic, designed to convey the message that the islanders are not forgotten.

But it is not hard to see that both, by very virtue of their symbolism, could be deeply irritating to Argentina – which indeed is the case. In an earlier verbal spat, Ms Kirchner had responded to a statement by David Cameron to the effect that the Falklands would remain British so long as the islanders wanted it, by describing Britain as a "crude colonial power in decline". So long as words do not pass into deeds, this is all good, even therapeutic, knockabout stuff.

There are, however, serious issues that will endure far beyond the heated rhetoric accompanying the twin anniversaries of victory and defeat. One is the long-term status of the Falklands, whose allegiance to Britain is, like it or not, an expensive relic of colonialism. Another is the demarcation of drilling and fishing rights, and a third is the rapid economic growth of Latin America, Argentina included.

With the memory of invasion still relatively fresh, it is hard to see how the current generation of Falkland islanders will countenance any concession to Argentina. Yet so long as the dispute continues, it cannot but hobble the UK's relations with a large and increasingly influential part of the world. When the countries of the trading group Mercosur agreed to bar their ports to Falkland-flagged vessels late last year, this was a sign of what could be to come.

As this sensitive anniversary progresses, both sides would be well advised to bear the metaphorical slings and arrows. Once it is past, however, there is a strong case for starting talks, perhaps with US mediation, to explore the prospects for ending a British-Argentinian cold war that has damaged the interests of both countries for the past 30 years.