By Christian Scheinpflug
Geopolitically Chile doesn’t occupy a spot in the sun. A retired army general once told me that even his Israeli counterparts likened Chile’s neighbourhood to that of Israel.
That’s vastly exaggerated. Neither have Chileans to fear rocket attacks nor do any of its neighbours worry about regular bombing campaigns. Chile’s environment remains challenging, rather because of both its small size and ineffective diplomacy inside the inter-American organisations. Countries like Uruguay enjoy much greater leverage in American affairs, due to effective alignment on issues like the Atacama and the Falkland Islands.
Actually, tensions already gather steam as the match has been lit last April by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). This body determined that Argentina may extend its shelf to 350 nautical miles, well beyond the Falkland Islands. Sure, the CLCS issues only recommendations to allow states to extend their continental shelf without actually touching on issues regarding “the delimitation of boundaries between States with opposite or adjacent coasts.” A CLCS decision therefore carries no legal weight.
It’s influential nevertheless. The ruling was a huge diplomatic success for Argentina, and in subsequent claims on the Falklands, Buenos Aires will certainly include the CLCS’ view. This may swing views of judges and general publics decisively and either boost or impede specific actions or arguments. With a disconcerting twist, the ruling, however, not only deals with the Falklands issue, between Argentina and Great Britain, it also interferes with Chilean sovereignty in Antarctica.
In a nutshell, the crux of the matter is that Argentina’s shelf extension doesn’t only stretch eastwards, but also to the south. There it overlaps with Chilean-claimed territory in Antarctica. Numerous military bases Argentina maintains on the cold continent, and Chile doesn’t, compound the problem. In light of this, I was baffled to read in La Tercera newspaper Chile’s foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz stating that this ruling had “not the least implication.”
Mr. Muñoz’s head-in-the-sand reaction may not seem noteworthy for most Chileans, but the current mess with Bolivia shows that the country’s diplomacy and approach to foreign affairs have to fundamentally change. Thus, it would be foolish to put trust in the agreement reached at this year’s 39th Consultative Meeting of the Antarctic Treaty which took place in Santiago de Chile and concluded with an agreement that all members — every country that claims territory in Antarctica, 53 in total — agreed to suspend territorial claims in favour of scientific collaboration. It’s just a matter of time until this pact breaks up.
In the current context, if Argentina gained an advantage over Chile in Antarctica it’d also gain one in the waters surrounding it. That, in turn, enables it to pressure Chile, as well as militarise and guard a far greater chunk of the South Atlantic, which then would embolden it to bring the Beagle issue up again. Think that’s far-fetched? Keep watching the Falkands issue.
The notion of spatial fix, developed by Neo-Marxists like David Harvey, highlights states’ need to deal with the contradictions of capitalism. The hyper-productivity of capitalism ‘overaccumulates,’ it generates too much profit to be viably reinvested, thus causing decline in employment, or surplus labour. States then need to deal with surplus labour preferably through facilitating employment, and find new ventures for investment.
Territorial expansion may not always require full military deployment. International institutions and alliance building are effective too but even more so with some military bases in hand. Influence in institutions and military readiness make for attractive attributes of a potential ally. And that’s why Antarctica is a powder keg. Formally unclaimed, no diplomatic restraints and shaky international law, but rich in resources — and soon inhabitable due to climate change and technological advance.
Chile won’t be able to escape these stresses. Until now, the country got comfortable in a liberal world order and global economy that presumably protected it from the wrath of the big fish. Negotiating the roles of devout servant and reliable supplier of raw material helped Chile to develop free of further (covert) foreign aggression, while also appeasing the internal ruling class and so reach a degree of social stability.
In the Antarctic no such stabilisers exist that could support Chile’s interests. Also, Chile is way too small and insignificant to count on unconditional support from either Washington, Beijing, or Moscow, but they are strong enough to punish or reward Chilean decisions. So, when push comes to shove — and it will — Chile will have to take sides, or risk losing credibility with all the big powers.
Instead of see no evil, speak no evil, just here for selling wine and copper, Chile should honour its history. Its neighbours forged an alliance that may not have worked in a superficial interpretation. But don’t forget that before the Pacific War, Chile was on its way to dominate, together with Brazil, all of South America, including the surrounding waters. The triple alliance reduced Chile to one among many, however. So, although two actors lost militarily in the short-term, they created an adversary they can diplomatically dominate in the long-term. There are some lessons to be learned here.
Global warming accelerates faster than science predicted, pushing the geopolitical conflicts that come with more forcefully to the fore. Chile has around a decade to clarify its status in Antarctica and work on a viable foreign-policy strategy, for if territorial conflicts aren’t confronted early on they are going to come back with a vengeance, even more so in a limited space like Antarctica. Despite Mr. Muñoz’s preference to ignore geopolitical dynamics, all the states active on the cold continent seek a spatial fix and strategic advantage.
The current fallout with Bolivia provides vital training for these coming confrontations. It should train decision-makers developing tactics to face non-military aggression diplomatically, and it should boost conflict resolution and alliance building skills. These will come in handy if Chile doesn’t want to repeat the old mistakes.
Christian Scheinpflug earned an Master’s degree from the University of Leicester. In his thesis he investigates the Anglo-Chilean alliance during the Falklands War. He lives in Santiago and works as translator, editor, and political analyst.
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