South America: Will Defense Spending Trigger an Arms Race?

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently returned from Moscow flush with fresh deals for battle tanks and missile defenses - a shopping spree that spurred a rare US admonishment that the leftist leader is provoking a regional arms race. Mr. Chavez claims that his latest move to stockpile weapons is in preparation for a future US attack to unseat him for better access to the country's vast oil reserves. He points to a new Colombian plan to allow US forces to use seven Colombian military bases as the latest example of US imperialist overreach. Relations between his country and the conservative government of neighboring Colombia have hit rock bottom. Yet this is more than just another tit-for-tat between two Andean nations whose relationship has deteriorated in recent years. Brazil raised eyebrows this month with its multibillion-dollar deal to buy French aircraft and submarines, and in much of the region, military expenditures are higher than they've been in decades. On one hand, South America is playing catch-up, modernizing and upgrading military forces after spending virtually nothing since the end of the cold war. But experts say that some of the purchases, such as Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia bought by Venezuela, are far more sophisticated than external threats merit and warn they could lead to unintended consequences. "The worrisome trend is [the purchasing of] offensive weapons for a country that does not have a major threat," says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a security and Latin America specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. And while she says that political tensions today are no greater than in the past, the arms bought by Venezuela could set off a race that threatens the region's stability. "It ups the ante," she says. New union tries to build trust The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has tried to step in - most recently meeting this month in Ecuador's capital, Quito, to call for greater transparency in military acquisitions. So far, however, UNASUR has been unable to agree on how to ensure mechanisms of transparency and confidence-building, as nations try to find a balance between their own sovereignty and the welfare of the region. UNASUR members have sought to assuage concerns sparked by the US-Colombian agreement that allows US armed forces to use Colombian bases. The agreement drew criticism not just from Chavez and his leftist allies but, also, somewhat unexpectedly, from the center-left governments of Chile and Brazil, too. Nations have voiced concerns that the plan's stated goals, to bolster counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations, could destabilize the region. Chavez has called it a provocation of war. Colombia: almost 6 percent of GDP spent on defense As some nations look skeptically at US military intentions in the region, they also look suspiciously at one another. Venezuela's $2 billion credit to buy Russian weaponry is on top of a brisk $4 billion business under way between the defense departments of the two countries. A week earlier, Brazil - seeking to consolidate its leadership role in the region - confirmed a deal worth more than $12 billion, by far the region's biggest acquisition, of submarines, helicopters, and fighter jets. According to IHS Jane's, a British-based information group specializing in defense issues, such expenditures have not been seen in decades. Spending in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela rose between 2007 and 2008. Colombia, which has received $6 billion in aid from the United States in the past decade, spent much more on defense as a percentage of its GDP (5.7 percent) than the other three countries, according to Jane's. Venezuela's recent plans, however, were singled out by the US government. "We have expressed concern about the number of Venezuelan arms purchases. They outpace all other countries in South America and certainly raise questions as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, responding to Chavez's announcement in Moscow. …