Situated in the Southern Hemisphere at the periphery of global geopolitics, Chile’s rapid economic growth and stable politics has shifted its politico-military strategic orientation from the Southern Cone of South America to the economic growth markets of the Asia-Pacific, with its Polynesian island possessions in the Southeast Pacific serving as springboards.
The Andean country has begun to benefit from both the growing Atlantic-facing economies of Argentina and Brazil while improving its reach courtesy of its assets in the Pacific Ocean. The extent of Chile’s reach in the Pacific Ocean, and in particular Oceania, will be much more visible once the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is ratified.
As one of the initial proposers of the TPP, Chile will benefit both in terms of increased stature among its peers in Latin America after the multilateral trade agreement comes into effect and a subsequent boost to its economy. That boost will come in part as the TPP will increase trade among Chile’s island possessions in the Pacific Ocean, in the eastern part of the Polynesian Triangle in the Pacific Ocean.
As the geopolitical significance of the South Pacific increases, most of the attention has been directed to the area encompassing the Southwest Pacific, including Micronesia and Melanesia. Here, external players such as the Asian giants India and China increasing their maritime footprints.
In contrast, Chile is developing its presence from the Polynesian islands, which are in the Eastern Part of the Polynesian Triangle. That presence owes much to President Michelle Bachelet and her deft diplomatic touch, which has involved attending the Pacific Islands Forum on a regular basis and building Chile’s soft power among the island countries.
Politically, the Southeast Pacific is represented in the Chilean Congress by two senators and two deputies. Chile’s grip on the Easter Islands is obvious, with a rising proportion of mainland Chileans dominating the local bureaucracy despite the representation of Polynesians on the six-member Easter Island municipal council and in the House of Deputies.
Easter Island, known locally as Rapa Nui, is situated more than 3,218 kilometers (2,000 miles) west of mainland Chile. Its control from the mainland is possible through a substantial military presence in capital Hanga Roa.
Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888. After the constitutional reforms of 2007, it extended Special Status. The islands are mainly inhabited by Polynesians, who at times call for self-determination within the Pacific Islands Forum.
Another Chilean island possession, the Juan Fernández Islands, are populated predominantly from mainland Chile and as such don’t have the same internal fissures. The over-representation of the Pacific island territories in the Chilean Congress should be noted, with two of seven senators elected from the Valparaiso district (out of a total of 38 senators), and two of the 12 Valparaiso deputies (out of a total of 120) coming from these under-populated territories.
The challenge for Chile will be to expand its trade and military presence in the South Pacific without first disrupting the delicate relationship between Polynesians and other indigenous peoples such as Melanesians and Micronesians.
Chile will join the Polynesian Leaders Group in an effort to demonstrate its commitment to the region, while subtly silencing the Polynesian self-determination movement of the Easter Islands. If that effort is successful, then Chile could expand its maritime reach further into the Southeast Pacific and even beyond.
Chile’s Maritime Strategy
Chile does not have the strategic depth befitting a Great Power, but it does have a long coast – a bonus for its maritime strategy. Chile’s maritime geography includes 6,435 km of coastline, 4,300 km on the mainland and the remainder distributed along Chile’s Antarctic and Pacific Island territories.
Chile’s maritime territory, including its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, covers more than 4.5 million square kilometers, with its assigned Maritime Search and Rescue Area of Responsibility encompassing 26.4 million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean.
Historically, Chile has been influenced by the British maritime strategic culture, which is why Chile has adopted the subtle and elegant aspects of Julian Corbett’s maritime strategy, rather than the bold and flamboyant version put forward by Alfred Thayer Mahan.
Interestingly, Chile could have evolved into a credible maritime power in the 20th century, with a stronger economy and booming trade, had its prized possession, the Strait of Magellan not lost out to Panama Canal for the latter’s ability to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean.
In the 21st century, Chile’s maritime strategy has been driven by the modernization plans of the Chilean Navy, which began with the turn of the century. Though not an organic naval power such as Great Britain or Australia, the expeditionary outlook of Chile’s military is possible because of the shifting power balance between civil-military institutions and among the three services.
Chile’s maritime expansion is aided by the fact that the Chilean military has reverted to a traditional professional military role after three decades of a praetorian and internal security role (1973-1990), followed by a decade and a half of political autonomy and independence from civilian authority (1990-2006). The Prussian orientation of the Chilean Officers Corps was visible until the death of its commander in chief Augusto Pinochet in 2006. The pyramidal military structure, dominated by the land forces, has been replaced by a more congenial power sharing among the three-services.
Despite the end of the praetorian role and its commitment to international peacekeeping, the Chilean army remains the dominant branch in the armed services, with the Chilean Navy and Air Force trying their best to establish themselves. The Chilean military High Command will have a tri-service power-sharing organization compatible with those of Western democracies such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and United Kingdom.
Chile’s military aspires to have expeditionary capabilities similar to those of other South Pacific maritime powers such as Australia, and has changed its training to enable extended deployments, particularly in the Southeast Pacific. What it lacks, and what is being addressed, is logistics and long-reach lift capabilities.
At present, the Chilean Navy has 68 surface ships, with six on order. Among its fleet are eight frigates, seven missile boats, six amphibious warfare ships, 16 patrol boats, two research vessels, and an icebreaker. It also has four submarines.
The Chilean Fleet is based in the port city of Talcahuano. An air wing includes three P-3 Orions and 21 helicopters as well as other patrol and cargo craft. At present, the Navy doesn’t possess an air combat wing of its own, but that could change in the near future.
In an effort to boost the combat efficiently of its navy, Chile participates in a number of bilateral and multilateral naval exercises, including the UNITAS annual exercise with other Western Hemisphere fleets.
In fact, Chile hosted the Pacific Portion of UNITAS 2015, which included participation from eleven countries: Australia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, South Africa, and the United States.
Chile’s is the first Latin American navy to have participated in bi- and multilateral exercises with Asian navies in the Western Pacific, and it holds regular SAR maneuvers with elements of the French Pacific Fleet. It has a maintenance and service upgrade agreement for its P-3 fleet with New Zealand, as well as a number of bilateral service accords with Argentina.
The Chilean Air Force meanwhile conducts regular maritime combat patrols using F-16 AM/BM and C/D, F-5E and A-36 Halcon fixed-wing platforms, along with a number of rotary-wing aircraft and a Hermes unmanned aerial vehicle. The Air Force regularly conducts joint maritime interoperability training with the Navy, either alone or in conjunction with multinational exercises.
Chile’s maritime expansion in the Southeast Pacific should be welcomed by other regional maritime powers, such as Australia and New Zealand. Australia in particular could be supportive, since its own maritime orientation is increasingly disposed towards the Indian Ocean and Southwest Pacific.
Also, with the Indian Navy seeking to expand its maritime reach into the South Pacific, New Delhi is stepping up cooperation with Chile both on the high seas and in the form of increased port visits.
Moreover, countries with a military presence in the South Pacific, such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea, can’t patrol in the Southeast Pacific since most their defense budget is spent on the land forces. Chile’s extended maritime presence could provide an important supplement.
Eventually, Chile could face an important decision on whether to join the U.S. forward deployment in the Pacific, which would mean extending its maritime capabilities further and playing a role in the South Pacific, even in the Southwest Pacific. This would entail greater cooperation with the U.S. Southern Command and with the Pacific Command. It would also lead to cooperation with the U.S. Seventh Fleet, to add to the current engagement with the Fourth Fleet.
As Chile bolsters its political, military and economic engagement with the South and Southeast Pacific, particularly following the TPP agreement, it should expect to be welcomed as an external player in the Asia-Pacific and could well see its stature rise in Latin America too.
Balaji Chandramohan is a Visiting Fellow with Future Directions International.