Chile’s New BFF

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post appeared elsewhere in a slightly different version on November 4, 2016.

Chile and China are getting cosy. After the APEC summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Chile on November 22, and was enthusiastically received by President Michelle Bachelet and the broader foreign-policy establishment. Poor foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz even had to “sustain an intense agenda,” while ordinary folks were snoozing away.

During an ‘honours dinner’ the heads of state agreed to upgrade the current Sino-Chilean ‘Strategic Association’ to ‘Integral’ level. This includes intensified free trade, closer cooperation on environmental matters, tourism and in multilateral forums.

Ominously, no word about human rights or democracy, even though these are pillars of Chilean foreign policy.

Chilean capital can therefore rejoice. Economic opportunism and blissful ignorance will keep socialism at the margins. Therefore, Juan Salazar, lamenting in the faux-journalistic outlet El Libero that the country has no “long- and medium-term strategies” has it wrong. Chile’s strategy is to make money.

Pursuing this endeavour while forging ties with China is legitimate. The Asian giant is close to becoming the regional hegemon and its global influence will only grow. Yet, Argentina provides a precedent for caution. In a research paper, Argentine professor Roberto Miranda unfolds the minutiae of how Argentina overestimated its own position, misunderstood China’s goals in Latin America, and so got hooked on a Chinese economy that got increasingly incompatible with Argentina’s, all of which caused major damage.

Chile’s propensity toward economic opportunism and a desire to be everybody’s darling heighten the risk of running wide-eyed into a similar situation. Chile didn’t become one of China’s preferred partners in the region for its wine and salmon, but for diplomatic and strategic reasons. From a Chinese perspective, the Chilean market is insignificant. It couldn’t absorb massive exports nor provide large-scale imports, but Chile holds a key to the continent as well as Antarctica. Most importantly, multilateral cooperation means that China counts on a supporter when it comes under fire for its massive human rights violations. China, as it did with Spain and Argentina, will pressure Chile, too, to take sides.

Bilateral agreements always involve asymmetrical power relations, but with Sino-Chilean relations it’s worse because Chile can’t even handle Bolivia which is much more restrained by international law. So what would happen if China was fooling around? As most of Chile’s economic policy, disguised as foreign affairs the agreement revolves around trade, which reached around US$ 22 billion between January and September 2016. This is marginal for China, but significant for Chile. Thus, the closer the countries are, the higher the possibility that a decision in Beijing affects Chile.

Take freedom of the press. Compared to China’s Chilean media is relatively free, even though it is largely filled with envy and corruptibility and payers directly influence journalists’s words as they buy advertisements from public relations companies that comfortably conceal such indecency. Yet, everyone can pretty easily open a blog and rail against the ruling class (although corporations sanction individuals who supposedly sully their image). How will the government react when a Chilean outlet shows, say, how quasi-slaves in Chinese labour camps produce the gadgets consumers adore?

Furthermore, despite Chile being a fierce materialist society with strong revisionist tendencies, human rights must remain a pillar of social stability. Without the National Human Rights Institute and the struggle to keep memory alive about the torture chambers, Chilean society will swing toward another dictatorship. Facing the current challenge of rising crime, social discourse already celebrates death and more repression enjoys public support.

China could and would ignore an authoritarian swing, even though it would, perhaps briefly, disturb business. Yet, for Chile this would be a disaster. In the current context, though, the importance of human rights and democratic principles could lead to confrontation when a dissident speaks up. Extraditing such a person to China, where torture and execution wait, would erode the legitimacy of human rights and reinforce the authoritarian drive. Refusing extradition, on the other hand, could provoke economic retaliation that may impede growth. What takes precedence: lifting a Chilean family out of poverty or defend democracy and a foreigner?

To avoid waking up in China’s cold embrace, but still reap benefits from this relationship, Chile needs to get serious about itself in the world. That means boosting International Relations research outside the simplistic economic frame. Moreover, experts on Sino culture are needed that not only see what Chile can sell to and buy from China. They must, for instance, tackle questions like why are there so many executions? How does the state produce, manipulate, and disperse information? How does Beijing see itself in the world and what are the country’s geopolitical objectives, tactics, and strategies?

Economic gain creates a rush for materialist society but it won’t last — and the strategic hangover will cause more than just headache.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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