Michael Fallon said he was seeking to improve relations with Argentina as he became the first British defence secretary in more than a decade to visit the Falkland Islands.
He said he wanted “to build a better relationship with the new Argentinian government, as neighbours in the South Atlantic and fellow G20 members,” according to a defence ministry statement on Wednesday.
Fallon on Tuesday bowed before a memorial obelisk in the capital Port Stanley in remembrance of the 255 British servicemen killed in the 1982 conflict with Argentina over the South Atlantic archipelago.
He left a wreath and handwritten note reading: “In grateful memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the liberation of these islands.”
The remote islands, known in Spanish as the Malvinas, were the source of tension between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Argentina’s former president Cristina Kirchner.
The spat came to a head at a G20 summit in 2012 when Kirchner tried to hand Cameron a package of papers relating to the disputed islands, which he refused.
Argentina’s new President Mauricio Macri said he wanted to start “a new era” in relations with Britain, shortly after succeeding Kirchner in January, but stressed he would maintain Argentina’s claim over the islands.
Argentina claims it inherited the windswept islands from Spain when it gained independence while Britain says it has historically ruled them and that the islanders should have the right to self-determination.
In a 2013 referendum, 99.8 percent voted to remain a British overseas territory.
The 1982 war claimed the lives of 649 Argentine soldiers, 255 British soldiers and three islanders. There are currently around 1,200 military and civilian personnel based in the islands.
Fallon also criticised comments by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that the sovereignty of the islands should be up for negotiation.
“The biggest threat at the moment isn’t Argentina, it’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party who want to override the wishes of the islanders,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
“The issue is how we improve relationships with rest of South America and we have the election of a new government in Argentina that may open the door to that.”