Van Klaveren: Chile set to play a more active regional role

President Gabriel Boric’s foreign policy decisions so far indicate a slightly different approach. Boric has highlighted human rights, migration, democracy and the environment as guiding principles, but a strategy is still lacking. Chile Today spoke with Alberto Van Klaveren, a former government official, about the potential direction.

One of President Gabriel Boric’s first foreign policy decisions was to withdraw Chile from Prosur, a regional organization created by his predecessor, Sebastián Piñera, and Colombia’s President Iván Duque. The departure was announced on Apr. 3.

Prosur was intended to be the right-wing equivalent to Unasur.

“I think that Boric’s decision to leave was to be expected and I don’t think that it is extremely relevant either because Prosur was no longer very active,” said Alberto Van Klaveren, who was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2006 and 2009.

Currently, Van Klaveren is professor of international relations at Universidad de Chile. Born in Amsterdam, he became influential in Chilean foreign policy, helping to get Augusto Pinochet back to the country after his detention in London in 1998 and representing Chile in The Hague in the maritime dispute with Peru in 2008.

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Getting Started

On the current trajectory, he said, “[Boric] very much favors the foreign ministry’s traditional project in the sense of achieving a certain convergence between Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance. This convergence I think is feasible politically but more difficult to realize economically, because we are speaking of very different integration processes. Mercosur, despite its shortcomings, is more advanced, and the Pacific Alliance, to a certain extent, is still just a promise.”

Mercosur, of which Chile is an associate member, was founded by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay to create a common market and promote democracy. Its biggest trade deal was signed in 2019 with the EU but is moribund. Attempts to revive it are underway.

Founded in 2011 by Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru to attract private investment, the Pacific Alliance is the region’s second-largest trade organization after Mercosur. Due to pragmatism and a streamlined structure, experts believe it has much potential.

Regional Relations

“I think there will be a certain effort to revitalize the idea of convergence, of different integration schemes and what I also foresee is a more active political role for Chile in terms of regional cooperation and initiatives,” Van Klaveren said. He expects the government to refocus on multilateralism, favoring democracy, human rights, and sustainable development.

Years after the Pink Tide subsided, several leftwing leaders have won elections again throughout the region. In key countries Brazil and Colombia leftists Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Gustavo Petro, respectively, are frontrunners. Colombians will vote in May and Brazilians in October.

If they come out on top, relations with these countries will warm, but even if their right-wing opponents win, Chile will seek cooperation, Van Klaveren said. “Obviously we cannot expect very close personal relationships between President Boric and [Brazil’s] President [Jair] Bolsonaro; I would say more because of Bolsonaro’s attitude than Boric’s,” he said. “But … I think that there is also room for cooperation between Brazil and Chile despite personal differences, especially in economic areas, investments, trade, and so on.” 

Relations could even improve gradually with Bolivia once the Silala River dispute, currently argued in The Hague, has been resolved, according to Van Klaveren. Boric previously said “a new step in bilateral relations” should be taken. 

But a full resumption of diplomatic relations was unrealistic, according to Van Klaveren, because Bolivia conditions such a move on negotiating sovereign access to the Pacific via territory that is Chile’s.

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Washington’s Curiosity

The next opportunity to shine internationally is the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles in June. Washington remains a strategic partner in military matters. An upgrade of Chile’s F-16 fleet, for example, was approved by the US congress in 2020, highlighting military – and hence sovereignty – dependence on Washington.

Van Klaveren said Washington is curious about contemporary Chile because “[the Boric government] is a different left; it is not your typical Latin American leftist government. It has a different view, it is probably more pragmatic and it has a more open attitude.”

Also, the association agreement with the EU “is a very interesting agreement because it has new provisions, especially in the area of investments, which is a very sensitive issue in Chile, and I think that there will be some innovation there,” Van Klaveren said. Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, recently tweeted that the agreement could be renewed this year.

Balancing China and the US

In the Asia Pacific, China is the focus, although Pacific Alliance partners Japan and South Korea require attention, too.

“China is extremely important as it is our main trade partner and a huge foreign investor,” Van Klaveren said. While relations will not fundamentally change, the government must handle an increasingly delicate balance between the US and China. “I think that that’s going to be a difficult issue, but Chile is not the only country facing this challenge,” he said.

Apart from defense and economic imperatives, sustainability is a major issue.

On that front, the government plans a turquoise foreign policy, combining green and blue policies that protect land and sea. The concept emerged during the second Bachelet administration but was largely ignored under her successor. Chileans studying foreign policy abroad refined the concept, and Boric incorporated it into his government proposal.

“I think that turquoise policy also implies internal changes and I think that those are currently taking place, especially in terms of changing the energy matrix of the country and certain external projections in terms of participating more actively in different international initiatives, especially the COP meetings and the recent adhesion to the Escazú agreement,” Van Klaveren said.

“For the blue part of the policy, I think there will be continuity because that emphasis was already there during the second Bachelet administration. Former Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz was very vocal in that respect and he achieved good levels of cooperation with other colleagues back then. There are probably going to be new maritime areas which will be protected and we can foresee an additional effort in terms of combating illegal or irregular fishing in the high seas.”

Domestically, this turquoise policy “is also a very important priority and the presence of Environmental Minister [Maisa Rojas], who has previously participated in the IPCC, is a guarantee in that sense.”

In the end, domestic policy will trump foreign policy, however. “Although all of this will also have an international projection, I think that internal priorities are going to be very important for the Boric government. He will probably have to concentrate on these more than external priorities,” according to Van Klaveren.

“The benefits of the country’s international insertion are expected to reach all segments of the population and all regions, through more participatory, transparent and consultative processes,” he said. Hence, the government must ensure that the benefits of international trade do not just reach the privileged segments of society, Van Klaveren said.

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