In February 2014, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague undertook his first official trip to Colombia, marking the latest episode in what has become an almost continuous flow of senior British ministerial visits to Latin America. The U.K.’s growing footprint in the region follows the announcement Hague made in November 2010 that Latin America had become a key focus of British foreign policy. During his stay in Colombia, Hague met with Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, and the ministers of finance, foreign affairs and defense. Topics discussed ranged from environmental issues to Britain’s support for efforts to tackle the illegal drugs trade and a joint commitment to work together on the U.K. government’s flagship Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative.
From Colombia, Hague traveled to Brazil to meet with leaders to discuss progress on the European Union-Mercosur free trade agreement, international security issues, human rights, Internet governance, commercial opportunities and future U.K.-Brazil collaboration on development in Africa. Hague’s trip followed an earlier visit that month to Colombia and Mexico by U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who announced Britain’s latest trade aspirations for the region—including reaching a trade target in Colombia of $7 billion by the end of 2015 and doubling the U.K.’s market share in Mexico to 1.5 percent by 2020.
This diverse agenda clearly illustrates both the breadth of British interests in Latin America and the importance London places on re-engaging with the hemisphere, part of a conscious response to recent shifts in political and economic weight toward the region. Throughout the past decade, several Latin American countries, notably Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Brazil, have experienced strong economic growth—largely owing to their booming extractive industries. Realizing the economic opportunities the region has to offer, the U.K. has sought to strengthen its ties there, viewing budding Latin American export markets as central to the government’s wider strategy of facilitating greater levels of overseas trade to secure the long-term growth of the British economy.
Against this backdrop, relations between the U.K. and its Latin American partners have grown at a steady pace, with London placing a particular emphasis on developing stronger bonds with Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. Given the extent to which security issues feature as a political priority throughout Latin America, it is hardly surprising that efforts to increase U.K. exports to the region have centered on the U.K.’s traditional defense industry as well as a growing number of related sectors, including corporate and domestic security, infrastructure protection and the extractive industries. While the U.K. has had several successes, with British companies including BAE Systems, Griffon Hoverwork and AgustaWestland being among those to have secured major export deals, securing future opportunities and enhancing Britain’s regional role in Latin America will not come without challenges.
As high levels of insecurity throughout Latin America, largely tied to the region’s lucrative illegal drug trade, continue to fuel cycles of violence, finding a route to market will remain a complex and daunting prospect for British companies looking to conduct business in the region for the first time. Meanwhile, events such as the latest outbreak of violence in Venezuela could add to the perception that Latin America is a hostile and high-risk environment for foreign companies to operate in. The U.K. is also not alone in its efforts to re-engage with Latin America as a growing number of other leading world powers, most notably China and the U.S., similarly look to expand their footholds in the region. As such, Britain must deal with the realities of competing within an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Yet perhaps the most significant obstacle is support for efforts to isolate Britain from Latin America, led by Argentina and inextricably linked to the territorial dispute between the two countries over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Rejecting the outcome of the referendum held in March 2013 in which the Falkland Islanders voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining a U.K. overseas territory, Argentina continues to internationalize the dispute over the Falklands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas, in an attempt to deflect attention away from other domestic policy areas, notably its failing economy. While the latest attempt to escalate the issue last month saw Daniel Filmus, Argentina's secretary for the Malvinas question, accusing the U.K. of wanting to pillage Argentina’s hydrocarbons, minerals and fish stocks, previous attempts have been more aggressive, including calls to boycott British imports and exerting pressure on other Latin American countries to refuse port visits by British ships.
While Britain’s current drive to boost relations across Latin America appears to be bearing fruit, entrenching the U.K.’s political, diplomatic and cultural ties to the region must continue to be at the center of all future efforts to enhance engagement there. Otherwise siding with Argentina over the Falklands debate may inevitably become the most convenient diplomatic course of action for Latin American countries to take—something that is likely to constrain Britain’s ability to develop existing partnerships and make the most of possible future business opportunities in the region.
Matt Ince is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).