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Geopolitics

How South American Oceans Can Sway The U.S.-China Showdown

As global rivalries and over-fishing impact the seas around South America, countries there must find a common strategy to protect their maritime backyards.

Photo of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during Rim of the Pacific

RIMPAC 2022

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — As the U.S.-China rivalry gathers pace, oceans matter more than ever. This is evident just looking at the declarations and initiatives enacted concerning the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Yet there is very little debate in South America on the Sino-American confrontation and its impact on seas around South America, specifically the South-Eastern Pacific (SEP) and South-Western Atlantic (SWA). These have long ceased to be empty spaces — and their importance to the world's superpowers can only grow.


After all, the U.S. has seven active navy forces in these regions. In 2008, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) created the Council of South American Defense, partly motivated by the relaunching of U.S. fleets in the seas around South America. But that organization effectively no longer exists — and nor does debate on what goes on in its oceans.

Military maneuvers and fishing

Another big event that might have prompted regional debate is China's Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013 with the aim of improving regional co-operation through better connectivity among countries lying on the ancient Silk Road and beyond. That project has a maritime component — the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

In the last decade especially, an intensification of Sino-American rivalry has increased multilateral interventions in the SEP and SWA. For example, the RIMPAC (Pacific Rim) exercises of recent decades, involving the United States and numerous allies, constitute the world's biggest naval warfare maneuvers. The maneuvers in 2022 involved Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico. There is also the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), initiated in 2007 between the United States, Japan, Australia and India, and which became more relevant after 2017. QSD may come to include European and Asian powers, though it remains to be seen whether it will be extended to South America.

The nations of South America must forge a renewed regime to govern the Antarctic

In 2020, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador joined forces to combat illegal fishing in the South Pacific, with support from the United States. In that context, in October 2020, the Center for International Maritime Security, an academic association, published a report in which it proposed an inter-American treaty of mutual assistance focused on illegal fishing, evidently with an eye on China. The U.S. Southern Command has enhanced its regional presence by participating in protective actions like the 2021 Operation Southern Cross, targeting illegal fishing.

Great Britain is another power fighting "illegal maritime activity" in the Southern Atlantic in line with the UK National Strategy for Maritime Security policy paper of August 2022. More recently, Chinese activities have shifted to the south-eastern Atlantic through the construction of a dozen ports in Africa. This has generated ideas like a proposal by the retired Dutch soldier Martin Meijer, published in 2021 in the review Maritimafrica, for a NATO-style South Atlantic alliance working around the African continent.

Photo of marines training in RIMPAC 2022

Mexican Marines Training in RIMPAC 2022

Haley Fourmet Gustavsen/U/Planet Pix/Zuma

Environmental consequences

The U.S.-based Heritage Foundation in turn suggested the utility of an Atlantic Quintet in a report in December 2020, including the U.S., Colombia, Brazil, Morocco and Nigeria, to curb China's maritime projection in this zone.

The oceans are gaining political and strategic weight

Argentina's current initiative to revive the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone, which Brazil first proposed in 1986, is also relevant. Today Brazil is discussing with the UN's nuclear inspectorate permission to use nuclear fuel in one of its submarines. Finally, both oceans meet in the Antarctic, an area of singular environmental importance. The United States, we should remember, has signed collaborative memoranda of understanding with Russia (2012) and China (2020) over the Antarctic.

But deteriorating ties between Beijing and Washington could affect commitments made on the Antarctic and turn it into a geopolitical fighting turf, which has already happened with the Arctic. Today more than ever, the nations of South America and especially the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay) must forge a renewed regime to govern the Antarctic and, above all, protect its environment.

The oceans around South America are gaining political and strategic weight, which obliges us here in Argentina and South America generally to analyze what this will mean and consider our collective responses.

*Tokatlian is a professor of international relations at the private Torcuato Di Tella University in Buenos Aires.

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