Peru’s place in the triangle of Asia-Pacific security

Harold Forsyth, Peru’s ambassador to the US, discusses diplomatic issues in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Listening Post - Political journalism in Peru
Ollanta Humala was elected as president of Peru in 2011 [AFP]

Washington, DC – Although Peru has emerged as one of the major growth markets in Latin America, its accomplishments too often remain overshadowed by those of its regional neighbours, particularly Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela. Peruvian diplomats are on a mission to change that. At the forefront of this outreach is Ambassador Harold Forsyth of the Republic of Peru’s embassy in Washington, DC. Through public diplomacy events, the ambassador is showcasing Peru’s growing economic power and cultural influence. The question is whether or not these efforts will translate into increased diplomatic power and prestige.

To answer this question, one must first understand where Peru sees itself within the international system and its command of issues related to international peace and stability. Eddie Walsh therefore sat down with the ambassador to discuss his views on major diplomatic and security issues in Latin America, the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond.

Eddie Walsh: Looking at the current security situation for Latin America in the Pacific in 2012, what do you feel are the greatest opportunities and risks facing Peru’s national interests?

Ambassador Harold Foresyth: In terms of Latin America, I see no reason to speak about risks of security and defence. On the contrary, I would say this part of the world is one of the safest. We are mostly democracies with respect for human rights and rule of law. We have the common objectives of free trade and open competition. The trade promotion efforts underway in the framework of APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] are the most promising challenges that we are overcoming.

EW: Stephen Johnson, Senior Fellow and Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently commented that the most difficult crisis facing Latin America in 2012 “could be the death or incapacity of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez“. How concerned are you about regional peace and stability in the event the president succumbs to his illness?

HF: In terms of regional peace and security, we do not see concerns. Of course, Latin American international relations have always been very complex and will be that way for some time. But, the Venezuelans have faced many challenges throughout their history. Venezuelans are used to dealing with such internal challenges and they will continue to do so. I have personally lived in Venezuela for over five years. It is a country that I love and respect very much.

EW: Joel Hirst of the Council of Foreign Relations has called the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) a proposal which will allow member states “to move beyond regulation and arbitration into the direct delivery of ‘social justice’ to the majority poor of their countries” What are Peru’s views on ALBA? Do you agree with its critics that it represents a serious revisionist threat to the dominant regional security and economic architecture in Latin America?

HF: It is not my aim or duty to give opinions about sovereign decisions of friendly neighbours. That said, ALBA is a politically legitimate option. Countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Dominica, and others have the right to establish a legal framework for their own matters. We don’t belong to ALBA and we have chosen other options in terms of grouping our objectives for trade and development. But, we very much respect their decision.

EW: Latin American defence spending rose 5.8 per cent in 2010, outpacing North America, Africa, and Asia. Peru and Chile were two of the highest increases. From Peru’s perspective, what is driving these increases in spending, and is there a threat of an arms race looming between the major powers of Latin America?

HF: Nobody wants an arms race. We have been dealing with that problem for the last 50 years in our region. It comes and goes. We are concerned, though, about the defence spending in the region as a whole. Something has to be done to regulate the region’s defence spending. But, we do not have specific concerns about specific countries.

In terms of Peru, these percentage increases are not a trend. For the last ten years, we have been one of the [lowest] defence spenders in Latin America. That has put our armed forces in a very difficult situation. So, plans have been put in place, including in the last few months, to just recover a little of what has been lost and not increase the firepower potential of the armed forces. That is why this indicator does not reflect the current state of affairs in defence spending.

EW: Bolivia has reactivated its claim on the Atacama corridor, and asserts sovereign rights to Pacific Ocean access. How does this affect Peruvian national security strategy? Do you fear that lingering tensions between Chile and Bolivia could lead to conflict?

HF: We follow this matter closely but it does not cause us fear. Our bilateral relations with Bolivia are very, very strong. We consider it to be Bolivia’s right to make claims to what they consider to be their historic rights and we wish them well. Whether these claims are legitimate is for Bolivians and judges to say. Every country has its own goals and perspectives, as we do. It is their right to put in such claims. We would not say that we encourage Bolivia to make such claims, though. We would only encourage ourselves.

EW: Despite warming relations in the middle part of the last decade, Chile and Peru recently found themselves at odds over Chilean military exercises and an alleged case of international espionage. What is your take on the status of bilateral relations with Chile? Can potential disagreements be managed within the existing security architecture in Latin America or Asia-Pacific?

HF: We have no other choice but to manage these issues within existing security architectures in Latin America and the world, such as the United Nations. That is why they exist. The International Court of Justice has very qualified judges. They will decide whatever doubts we and the Chileans have about the maritime borders. We truly believe in the structure that exists in the international system for the peaceful solution of controversies.

We are two big countries with a complicated history. But, we are also friendly countries with a rich history and mutual interests trying to share a common destiny. I myself married a Chilean and have had the privilege of serving at the embassy in Santiago. We are neighbours who depend upon one another. There is a huge investment of Chile in Peru and Peruvian investment in Chile is growing. While there are some complex issues, they will always have to be resolved in terms of international law.

EW: In response to the same question, Chilean Ambassador Arturo Fermandois said that he does not believe that the pending Peruvian border lawsuit before the International Court of Justice in The Hague should “interfere with the mindset of other issues that shape your bilateral relationship“. Are you equally confident that the decision of the court will not threaten your bilateral relations?

HF: I agree with him. This is not a problem of choosing what to do. We have no choice to do something other than abiding by the decision. Doing something else would be subversion. We would be insulting Chile if we thought that they would not fulfil their international obligations as derived from previous compromises with the United Nations.

EW: What is Peru’s strategic assessment of rising Asian powers, particularly China? Is Peru concerned that China will challenge the current international system and seek to make it more favourable towards its own interests? Do you think that the United States and its allies have properly accommodated Chinese interests in the international system to date, or should they be willing to concede more?

HF: I have personally been ambassador to China from 2009-2011. We do not see any particular danger of China trying to develop political power in our region in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, they have always been low-key about discussing the internal affairs and political systems of other countries, which characterises the current debate in the world.

China is a different partner. We have to respect their style. They are a very big power but they don’t like to behave as an empire in traditional terms. That is interesting to observe and watch. But we don’t see that they will interfere because they have tremendous domestic challenges to face, as evidenced this year.

In terms of the United States, they watch China with interest but I don’t think there is a danger of conflict over competing territories by these superpowers. In terms of economics and trade, they are complementary in Latin America. There are scholars who refer to this as the triangle structure of China, US, and Latin America.

We have never felt that there is a kind of attitude of reserve to our bilateral relations with China. This is because the strongest bilateral relations in the world are between China and the United States. So, the US would have no authority to take such a position on our country. I think that they in fact encourage such relations. The US takes the position that China should participate actively in the world because that active participation encourages their relationship. Besides, every year, they have bilateral meetings only to discuss Latin American affairs. It more or less could be like the responsible stakeholder argument.

EW: From your perspective, do you see China playing (or increasingly playing) the responsible stakeholder role in Latin America?

HF: As a person in public office, I would not say it is responsible or not. I would say they are active. They were our first commercial partner. We have a free trade agreement between our two countries and they fulfill their legal responsibilities. Of course, in their investments in Peru, they are still facing problems related to communities’ reactions in the mining industry. The Peruvian president is visiting China in the next few months.

EW: China appears to be advancing its interests in Latin America through satellite diplomacy. Latin American countries, including Bolivia and Venezuela, have been the beneficiaries. There are concerns that such cooperation could boost their military capabilities. Based on these arguments, are you concerned that China’s satellite diplomacy in Latin America is undermining your national security interests? And, will this topic be on Peruvian President Humala’s agenda for his upcoming trip to China?

HF: In general terms, technology has always had that kind of danger. We think that the countries mentioned will have to do things to safeguard their interests. But, in Peru, we now feel that something must be done to enhance our potential in that particular area. We have spoken with the Chinese about enhancing our capabilities there too, but so far nothing has been done because of the other needs that we have in Peru. And the costs for these systems are also very high. So, we have not made a decision, but eventually we will need to do something.

EW: Analysts point out that Chile has been the most active Latin American player in the Pacific over the past few decades. It is no surprise that Chile is therefore referred to as Latin America’s Pacific Gateway. But, scholars are now suggesting that other countries in the region are starting to make the strategic shift to the Pacific as well. Do you think that, as the region shifts, a dominant Latin American country will emerge in the Pacific?

HF: Latin America will always be a great player with respect to the Pacific Basin. I would not speak about dominance with respect to the Pacific. But, it is extremely, extremely hard to tell which countries will emerge. Right now, there are two levels. Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina are the major economic powers. Afterwards, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and – to a lesser extent because they have not been able to sign a free trade deal with China – Colombia.

No one can doubt that Brazil is one of the most important Latin American countries in terms of economic power, which is related to political power. So, we think that the power and prestige of Brazil will increase exponentially over the next couple of decades. But, all analysts agree that the potential of Peru is great. It is now predicted that we will be among the top 25 countries by 2050. Our rate of growth is impressive. So, the world should expect something from us although they don’t yet see it.

EW: Lots of analysts are writing about India’s shift east beyond the Straits of Malacca. Do you see increased engagement in Latin America by India yet? And, what is your outlook for Indian engagement in Latin America over the next 25 years?

HF: You are using the right term. I see increased engagement. But this engagement is slow. The Indians have a lot of compromises with a lot of other regions of the world and they are getting used to being a first class power in terms of world affairs in economic and political terms.

We very much believe in India and we want this type of engagement. The Indian private sector is known all over the world. We hope that important steps will be taken in the next five to ten years to achieve results. We need significant investment and a real presence of Indian entrepreneurs in our countries. We also need them to open up their markets for our exports and developing free trade agreements between our countries.

Eddie Walsh is a foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He is a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Vice Chair of International Correspondents at the National Press Club.

Follow him on Twitter: @ASEANReporting

The views expressed in this article are those of whom they are attributed to, and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.