Britain and Chile: Partners in the Indo-Pacific

Among Chile’s many bilateral relations, its relationship with the United Kingdom (UK) is undoubtedly one of the deepest. As proof, in a foreign policy and national security survey conducted by IPSOS for AthenaLab, the UK appeared in fourth place as a partner according to experts’ preferences.

Perhaps some would expect an even higher position, but the fact that the UK appears among the highest is great news, considering that this is not explained by economic flows, which in Chile’s case are mostly related to Asia, nor cooperation on security matters, which today are oriented towards the United States (US). Instead, Britain’s position essentially affirms a deep relationship built on common interests and values that has been expressed with different intensities over the years.

Long before the Brexit process came to fruition, Chile became the first country to sign a free trade agreement with the UK, based on an understanding that our exchanges should keep moving forward in a beneficial way for both countries, regardless of what happened between London and Brussels. Without a doubt, it was a successful bid that was replicated by other countries also wanting to capitalise on this new stage of the so-called ‘Global Britain’.

To a greater extent than in the past several years, today there are new opportunities to continue strengthening ties between both countries, in particular, due to Britain’s renewed interest in playing a more relevant role in the Indo-Pacific, the ‘macro-zone’ where the future of the world is being determined.

The UK’s formal request to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has been strongly supported by the Chilean government, which appeals to the credibility of the British to convince local lawmakers still reluctant to understand the advantages of a pact that establishes business rules for the 21st century.Likewise, the Royal Navy’s announcement to deploy HMS Queen Elizabeth – its giant new aircraft carrier – to the Indo-Pacific this year is a very interesting decision for a country like Chile), whose navy has British Type 23 frigates, officers trained in Britain and, most importantly, the DNA of Lord Thomas Cochrane, one of its founders. The integration of a Chilean ship to the battlegroup of HMS Queen Elizabeth, for example, would allow for the revitalisation of existing cooperation in support of freedom of navigation.

Chile is also committed to strengthening ties with new common partners in this region of the world, as is the case with Australia. After technical and commercial evaluation, Chile decided that a new fiber optic cable to connect it with Asia will pass through the oceanic country, despite Chinese offers. Chile also bought two ships from Australia to keep the Chilean Navy’s capabilities up-to-date.

Concerns about climate change and the health of the oceans are other areas where scientific cooperation has created natural bridges between Chile and the UK, both maritime countries. The same is true in Antarctica, where despite overlapping claims to sovereignty, there has been cooperation for decades. Also, both nations are members of the Antarctic Treaty and are observing how geopolitical competition in that continent is intensifying with the entry of new actors who do not always respect international rules.

However, Chile has sent Britain some worrying signals, such as when President Sebastián Piñera expressed his support for Argentina in its claim to the Falklands and other nearby islands. In many ways, this was an own-goal, since it interfered in a bilateral matter, and took place just as Argentina issued a new official map, which included Chilean territories.

Rather than prioritising relations with Argentina, Chile should embrace closer ties with the UK. London’s defence of democracy in the face of authoritarian governments with global or regional scope is admirable. Given Chile’s recent past, a commitment to democratic values must be part of the identity of a coherent foreign policy.

The G7 Summit in Cornwall in June generates enormous expectations in this regard, especially due to the decision of Boris Johnson’s government to invite Australia, South Korea and India in order for this club of industrial powers to acquire the connotation of leading democracies (D10). Indeed, a recent index released by the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Chile as one of three ‘full democracies’ in the whole of South America.

While Chile and Britain continue to battle Covid-19, everything seems to indicate that new opportunities are arising to continue deepening a relationship with shared interests and values in the search for a prosperous, safe and free world. Chile and the UK are destined to understand each other in more areas than one can count.

Juan Pablo Toro is Executive Director of AthenaLab, Chile’s leading foreign and defence policy think tank. He was previously International Editor of the Chilean newspaper, El Mercurio.

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