Former Ambassador Of Chile To Singapore Talks Climate, Singapore, And How He Entered The Foreign Service

Is Chile still at the forefront of climate activism after the cancellation of COP25 in the country last year? Did Chile betray the environment by not signing the Escazú Agreement? As Singapore celebrates 40 years of diplomatic relations with Chile last year, former Ambassador of Chile to Singapore, James Sinclair Manley, not only tackles some of these questions with us, he also shares some of the best practices the two countries can contribute to one another.

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Last September, the world was treated to witnessing the largest climate protest in history where millions took to the streets of the world’s biggest cities.

The brainchild behind this massive phenomenon? A 17-year-old Swedish teen named Greta Thunberg.

Greta Thunberg on strike outside the Swedish Parliament. | Photo Credit: Michael Campanella/The Guardian

The climate activist’s solitary strike outside Sweden’s parliament in 2018 which then spurred a global climate protest around the world has earned praise from many, including former Ambassador of Chile to Singapore, James Sinclair Manley.

While the country was supposed to have hosted the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25) in December last year but decided against so due to internal unrest, local environmentalists took the initiative to launch their parallel conference in Chile’s capital, Santiago.

Despite the change in COP25’s venue, Chile also continued to chair the conference in Madrid and will also continue to be in charge of COP this year with the different activities and meetings.

At the forefront of environmental activism in Latin America since 2018, it was the first country to ban plastic bags in the region and its president, Sebastián Piñera, was also awarded the Global Citizen Award by the Atlantic Council last year for his environmental efforts.

Emphasising the importance of international cooperation in the fight against climate change, President Piñera proposed a climate action plan that would turn Chile into a carbon neutral country by 2050 by shutting all coal power plants by 2040, decarbonising the energy matrix, replacing fossil fuels in all public transportation, setting high energy efficiency standards, and reforesting and protecting forests.

His Excellency, Ambassador James Sinclair | Photo Credit: Sophia Thompson

In an interview with The IAS Gazette last October, Mr Sinclair, 67, not only commended Miss Thunberg’s movement by calling her a ‘serious and diligent individual who is devoted to climate change’, he even affirmed that she would be an asset to COP25.

“There were many members of the public who were unable to take her seriously, with some even calling her a preacher,” said Mr Sinclair who hopes to see more young people raising their voices for the cause they believe in.

“We should take her as she is as she has managed to touch on the main issue in her speeches.”

While Chile, which has set its targets to produce 20 per cent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2025, had hoped that the conference could be a new step of embracing green energy.

But it turned out otherwise.

Negotiators not only failed to complete rules for carbon markets or make clear calls for more ambition in cutting greenhouse gas emissions to limit rising global temperatures, the session was also bogged down by technical issues such as the rules for carbon market mechanisms, which have eluded completion for years.

During a grilling in her country’s Congress in January, Chile’s environment minister and COP25 president Carolina Schmidt called countries like Brazil, Australia, China, and the US out for blocking tougher action at the UN climate talks.

She said: “We accomplished seven of the eight objectives that we had before COP and we managed to get countries to commit to more ambitious goals, to protect the oceans, to incorporate a policy about gender”.

Cerro Dominador CSP Project | REVE (Spanish initials that stand for Wind Energy and Electric Vehicle Magazine)

As part of the country’s national renewable energy programme, environmental adjustments have been enforced e.g. the construction of solar power plants – the Cerro Dominador CSP project to prevent the emission of approximately 643,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

This is to provide Chile with cleaner energy while reducing its dependence on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

Mr Sinclair said: “Chile is keen on developing a better and cleaner country in order to be environmentally friendly.

“Concerned about the oceans, it is the first South American country to have taken steps to legally ban the widespread commercial use of plastic bags.”

On top of that, the country was also a pioneer in pushing the Escazú Agreement, the first environmental treaty for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Hailed as a “historic agreement” by the United Nations Environment Program, it was a first for so many countries from a region plagued with environmental conflicts to reach an agreement that combined the “rights of access to environmental information, public participation in the environmental decision-making process and access to justice in environmental matters”.

However, Chile, who eventually backed out from signing or ratifying the agreement due to several concerns, was criticised for turning their backs on being the defenders of Mother Earth by not signing the agreement and losing 1.2 million hectares of forests by opening 14 thermoelectric plants in the last 10 years.

But Mr Sinclair has since defended the move.

He said: “While the Chilean government wants to embrace and commit to the new energy that they have been working on, closing down energy plants all at once will badly affect a large population.

“This issue would require some time to provide for other alternatives for those whose livelihood depends on these plants.

“Changing the nation’s rules and regulations needs time to train, educate, and convince the locals to adapt a different method, especially those who are unaware of the consequences of climate change.”

Second From Left: Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, former Ambassador of Chile to Singapore James Sinclair, Representatives of Gardens by the Bay (1st and 5th), and Commander of the Esmeralda Captain Claudio Maldonado. | Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Besides its own domestic and regional initiatives, the former ambassador also praised Singapore, for whom it celebrated 40 years of diplomatic ties with last year for its progress in green technology.

An ambassador of Chile to Singapore since 2014, Mr Sinclair noted that local rig builder Sembcorp Industries (Sembcorp) has assisted Chile in coming up with ways to utilise its seawater for agribusinesses and the mining industry.

For instance, the company has created some plants to pump water to the mostly desert mining locations clustered in the north of Chile.

While the water business in Chile has been sold to the Spanish construction and engineering service SACYR S.A. group of companies, Mr Sinclair acknowledges that this is a good case study of how the two countries can help educate and improve each other’s development.

In addition, he also calls for closer cooperation between the two countries by exploring the possibility of transferring that skillset to the Chileans here so that they can contribute back home.

Since the inauguration of the Chilean resident embassy in 1979, the two countries have been working closely to promote goods and provide consular services.

The first main linkage between the two countries was the signing of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (P4), a free trade agreement between four countries – Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Singapore and New Zealand, the latter’s first and only trade agreement with a Latin American nation.

The first free trade agreement – linking Asia, the Pacific and the Americas – has led to an increased amount of exports for each country, and has opened up more opportunities in investment and services.

It has also set the stage for a much more ambitious Pacific Rim agreement where eight more countries subsequently joined the P4 economies to negotiate the free trade agreement known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP or TPP11).

2018 Conference for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) held in Santiago, Chile. | Photo Credit: Council on Foreign Relations

Although the US eventually withdrew from the agreement in 2016 citing that it undermines their domestic economy and independence, the remaining 11 states believed in keeping the spirit of the multilateral partnership alive which led it to renaming the agreement as CPTPP. 

Amongst the agreements were also the setting up of the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation in 1998 to form an official and annual dialogue channel between the two regions to discuss mutual interests and common tasks.

In addition, the two have also joined forces to assist developing countries in both Southeast Asia and the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) region to provide them with tools and mechanisms to become democratic and more transparent, and prevent corruption.

This government to government (G2G) element sees Chile and Singapore taking turns to meet in each other’s countries and focus on the developing countries in that region.

From left: Former Ambassador of Chile to Singapore James Sinclair and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan | Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Describing the relationship between Chile and Singapore as “brotherly and auspicious”, the ambassador is positive that bilateral relations between the two countries will be a smooth-sailing one.

“Singapore and Chile have similar development goals and plans for the future such as having an open economy, and we have been backing each other up constantly.

“There will not be any problems but only collaboration and cooperation in the most dynamic and fair way.”

In fact, he hopes the Pacific Ocean will assist in establishing two platforms –  to use Singapore as a hub to enter Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries – which he believes represents the future of commerce and trade, exchange of people, goods and services – and concludes a Pacific Alliance-Singapore free trade agreement by this year.

Advising Singaporeans “to not be afraid to go far away”, he said: “the Pacific Ocean does not divide the two countries. Instead, it is a bridge full of possibilities.

“Chile looks at this side of the world with great admiration and is fully committed to develop a very strong and close relationship through networking and the exchange of students.”

His Excellency, Ambassador James Sinclair | Photo Credit: Sophia Thompson

Having worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 38 years, the cheery ambassador, who, upon graduation from the Diplomatic Academy Andrés Bello, which is the institution responsible for training future diplomats in Chile, started his career in the ministry, said he has no regrets about this choice of his.

In fact, the son of a military general who travelled and lived in many countries within the Middle Eastern and Asian regions would “do it all over again” if he could.

“My dream to become a diplomat started when I was eight years old, after my aunt encouraged me to pursue my interest.”

It sowed the seeds of wanting to learn more about the world, he added.

Having served in multiple posts – Peru, Argentina, USA, and Indonesia – prior to his stint in Singapore, the well-travelled diplomat said one thing he is thankful for is the level of public safety it provides for its citizens, including his family, while travelling around at night.

“A melting pot of culture, this country is so inviting to foreigners and accepting of all races.”

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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