South American sea power: think globally, act locally


Inquires a Chilean friend, “what is the utility of navies such as the Chilean one? Should it partner with the U.S. Navy if Chile’s main trading partner is China?” From a neophyte on the subject of South American sea power: no and yes.

No, Chile needn’t join any sort of formal maritime alliance with the United States. As Yale geopolitics guru Nicholas Spykman might say, look at the map. It’s hard to stage operations in Asia across the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean. We make much of the geographic distance separating the fleet base at Pearl Harbor from East Asia, but the North American west coast is more than two thousand miles farther away than Oahu from potential Asian battlegrounds. Operating in Asia is no simple feat — even for the U.S. Navy, with all its geographic and resource advantages.

Spykman might put it thus: the southern continent might be called South America, but it could just as well be dubbed East America. The vast majority of it lies east of Washington, DC. Santiago, the Chilean capital, lies slightly east of Boston, Massachusetts. It also lies far to the south, at the terminus of a distended great-circle route to Northeast Asia. Bottom line, it’s over 10,000 miles from Chilean seaports to Tokyo Bay. That’s close to double the steaming distance from San Diego to Tokyo Bay, which comes to just under 5,600 miles.

That being the case, it would be a bridge too far for the Chilean Navy to join a maritime coalition in Asia under U.S. auspices. The practical difficulties are forbidding. Consequently, there’s little reason for Chilean leaders to antagonize the Colossus of the Far East barring some truly extraordinary circumstances. All governments, including Santiago, must put the national interest first. That includes economic interests, and in turn the well-being of the populace.

If China is Chile’s prime trading partner, Chilean leaders have reason to be circumspect — declining to take on needless quarrels. That’s how I would play it.

But Yes, the Chilean Navy can and should act as a silent partner in U.S. maritime strategy. The 2007 and 2015 editions of the U.S. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower make it plain that preserving freedom of the sea is central to American strategy, and that alliances, coalitions, and partnerships of all types are the way to amass enough forces at enough places on the map to make that happen. Washington has in mind a kind of joint custodianship of the liberal system of seagoing trade and commerce.

Chile can play its part in that multinational strategy by keeping good order at sea in its own offshore waters, and by making common cause with fellow South American fleets. No one need come to its assistance. Santiago can help the United States and its partners by helping itself. And it can do so without concluding an alliance that affronts China.

Chileans can have it both ways — for the time being.