After 200 years of bilateral relations, both countries need to reassess how to collaborate on common goals including a complex maritime environment in Latin America’s southernmost waters.
The recent tour of Chile’s President Gabriel Boric to China has once again brought the country’s relations with its main trade and strategic partners, Beijing and Washington, to the forefront. However, Chile’s broad spectrum of international relations, which includes a diversity of national interests and free trade agreements with multiple countries and conglomerates around the world, does not end with the two major players. Little is said about the other three medium-sized powers that are permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The UK, France and Russia are of great importance to Santiago, especially the former two since they are near neighbours of Chile, with France in Polynesia and the UK in the Falklands and Antarctica. Chile has significant trade exchanges with Paris and London, although they are not critical or on the scale of those that Santiago has with China or the US. Nevertheless, Chile has considerable strategic interests in engaging with both.
As medium-sized nuclear powers, France and Russia maintain their historical global aspirations, even though in practice they lack the economic means and military operational reach to have a relevant and permanent global influence. This is not the case for the UK or the type of relationship the Chilean authorities should seek with the British. It is a relationship that has spanned 200 years of bilateral and consular ties and has varied in intensity and breadth over time, in line with the changing position the UK has held in the world.
As a result of the recent visit of UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly to Chile in May 2023, both countries issued a joint statement that, in this author’s opinion, adequately reflects the state of the relationship. It is a commercial relationship that revolves around annual trade of approximately $600 million, including imports and exports, where both countries export products in which they excel and are competitive. It is a balanced, open and transparent relationship, but one limited by the productive and economic realities of each country. All indications are that, despite the efforts of the Chilean-British Chamber of Commerce and bilateral trade agreements, the relationship will remain within the aforementioned range, as there are inherent limitations on both sides.
It is clear that British-designed vessels are suited to the needs of Chile’s complex maritime environment, including the southern waters and the Pacific Ocean
The joint statement highlights the interest of Chileans in pursuing postgraduate studies at prestigious universities in the UK, something that several members of the ruling coalition Frente Amplio pursued in their younger years. It also acknowledges deep naval ties and shared strategic interests in the realm of national defence, which both navies seek to maintain despite budgetary constraints and challenges posed by Argentina.
The commercial aspect will continue to take care of itself as long as exports and imports have value and commercial logic. The same applies to the interest in studying abroad, which will continue as long as UK universities maintain their good global rankings. However, naval ties, consisting of long-standing strategic relationships in which both navies invest time and talent, do not operate according to the same logic. They have managed to persist over time, despite Chile’s Foreign Ministry supporting Argentina’s claim to the Falklands and becoming entangled in any issue involving Santiago’s neighbours. It is important to remember that the UK was also a strategic ally of Argentina and a provider of naval platforms to the country until the South Atlantic conflict in 1982.
Historically, Chile has relied on the UK as its main supplier of naval platforms, including support in the areas of training, doctrine, crew training, and capacity building. It remains to be seen whether the UK can maintain this primary role as a strategic ally as the Chilean Navy fully engages in the process of modernising its fleet through the ongoing national naval construction plan in the country. This plan has initially focused on renewing auxiliary units, but will soon require decisions regarding frigates, missile systems and submarines.
The British are aware that they have an advantage with the Type 140 frigate (an export model of the Royal Navy’s Type 31 based on successful Danish designs), but competition will likely emerge, as meeting Chile’s strategic needs will involve significant resources. The option of renewing the fleet with second-hand vessels no longer exists, as the global demand for frigate-type vessels has extended the service life of existing ships. Chile needs a fleet of at least eight frigates and a force of four submarines to maintain adequate deterrence, security and strategic influence, contributing to the country’s foreign policy and the ability to defend Chilean interests and sovereignty wherever they may be.
The Chilean Navy will have to renew its units sooner rather than later, and it is clear that British-designed vessels are suited to the needs of Chile’s complex maritime environment, including the southern waters and the Pacific Ocean in which Chile operates – a fact well-known since Lord Cochrane commanded the National Squadron over 200 years ago.
An objective and realistic analysis of Chile’s strategic needs should take precedence over any idealistic Latin Americanist aspirations that do not align with facts and data
Chile must be intelligent in designing its strategy of alliances and ties with professional navies. It knows that it needs to begin renewing the main assets of its fleet in order to materialise the deterrent effect it requires. In this regard, Chile’s Ministry of Defence should link up with the Foreign Ministry to consider the interests and objectives that arise from this undeniable reality.
On the other hand, Chilean diplomats must understand that an objective and realistic analysis of the country’s strategic needs should take precedence over any idealistic Latin Americanist aspirations that do not align with facts and data. The necessary renewal of the national fleet requires keeping as many options as possible open in order to negotiate an agreement that best serves Chile’s interests. Thus, prematurely or eventually discarding the option of choosing a British model based on neighbourly politics may not necessarily contribute to national strategic interests. Chile should prioritise seeking the most efficient and effective solution for the Navy to fulfil its mission.
It is important to recognise that, without a deep strategic component – specifically in naval and maritime affairs – the relationship with the UK will lose strength and remain solely a commercial relationship based on the productive potential of both countries, enhanced by the elite’s interest in education and travel to London, which – despite Brexit – remains one of the world’s most important and vibrant capitals. If Chile were to choose a partner other than the UK for its naval modernisation, it would have to address the complex issue of how to provide security and protection for its permanent maritime interests without its proven and traditional provider in these matters.
Senior Associate Fellow RUSI
Vice Chairman of AthenaLab