In Uncles Sam's Backyard: China's Military Influence in Latin America

Article excerpt

WHEN ANALYZING CHINA'S RELATIONS with Latin America, most observers tend to give marginal attention to the military and defense dimensions of the relationship and focus primarily on economic matters. A survey of official and academic publications on China's involvement with Latin America shows the minimal attention given to the military aspect of the phenomenon. (1)

Many have pointed to China's limited arms sales to Latin America as a clear indicator of China's insignificant military position in the region. But weapons trade is not the only avenue available for establishing military influence abroad. Military and defense education, official visits by military officers and defense officials at various levels, participation in joint exercises, UN missions, air shows, and the provision of both non-military and military services are ways the Chinese are increasingly building a presence in Latin America. China's defense ties with Latin America have until recently been sporadic, involving little more than a few widely spaced official visits and even fewer hardware sales. However, since 2000, China has engaged in a patient, comprehensive diplomacy strategy toward Latin America. The PLA's new charm offensive is slowly but steadily winning a foothold. Initiatives beyond arms sales are incrementally allowing the PLA to create a foundation for long-term military cooperation in the not so distant future.

There are significant political, economic, and military dimensions to most weapons trade. By that, I mean that major arms sales tend to follow or run in parallel with close and favorable political and economic relations. For instance, major recipients of U.S. arms, such as Israel, are allies of Washington that enjoy a close, privileged relationship. The same applies to NATO members and U.S. allies in Asia and the Middle East. Arms sales take place in a larger political and diplomatic setting. A direct link exists between major arms transferences and the nature of political and economic relations.

Using this line of reasoning, we can conclude that China's arms sales to Latin America are likely to increase as China's political and economic relations with Latin America progress. Beijing's rising economic and political influence in Latin America may pave the way for major Chinese arms sales and a further expansion of its military influence. China's sophisticated new defense diplomacy is a major force driving this process.

China's Military Diplomacy

Defense-related and military education is an increasingly important, albeit unnoticed, instrument in Chinese defense policy. Training of Latin American military officers in the People's Liberation Army (PLA) academies has certainly been on the rise. Not so long ago, few officers from Latin America attended Chinese military academies. However, in the past several years, over 100 officers representing the three services of 12 Latin American countries graduated from PLA academies.

China trains officers at all levels of command and in all services. For instance, at the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Command Staff College, junior and senior officers from Latin America attend different levels of education in the same year, allowing the Chinese military to become acquainted with officers from different generations and from all services. (2) Most significant perhaps is China's training of the upper echelons of Latin America's military at Beijing's elite national defense university, PLANDU. Each year Spanish-speaking senior officers from all services attend a four-and-one-half month-long course on grand strategy. By inviting these officers, the PLA is ensuring that attendees are those who will be in positions of power, which will allow closer relations with China and enhance influence and prestige with the Latin American military. (3)

Surprisingly, officers from countries hostile to the United States such as Cuba or Venezuela no longer frequent these courses, while countries with traditionally close relations with the United States such as Colombia, Chile, and Argentina do. …