China's Use of the Military Instrument in Latin America: Not Yet the Biggest Stick

By Watson, Cynthia | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview
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China's Use of the Military Instrument in Latin America: Not Yet the Biggest Stick

Watson, Cynthia, Journal of International Affairs

China's involvement in Latin America has grown steadily over the past decade but there are a number of constraints on the role of the People's Liberation Army that prevents it from becoming the most important mechanism in expanding China's role in Latin America. This paper discusses those constraints and the methods China's military has used to engage with Latin America in the twenty-first century.


China is a distant partner for any country in Latin America, both figuratively and literally. Much as Brazil is the dominant state for South America, China is the dominant geographic entity in Asia, but its ties with Latin America are relatively new and perhaps unexpected. China has a proud history spanning nearly five millennia. Latin America, a diverse array of more than two dozen states with only a two-century history of independence in its current configuration as nation-states, has never held the international respect that characterizes much of China's history. The two regions have had little historic connection, but the needs of those states on both sides of the Pacific are altering that reality.

China, with its authoritarian Communist Party leadership, has developed an economy and modern consumption patterns to sustain its phenomenal economic growth that requires Beijing's deepening engagement with the rest of the world. China's relationship with Latin American states has become an especially interesting new set of engagements. Latin American-Chinese bonds, for example, offer trade and economic benefits, diplomatic respect, cross cultural links, and the chance to lessen U.S. influence over both regions.

One might assume that the Chinese armed forces, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will be at the forefront of its reach into new relationships around the world, inferring the inevitability of the competitive, threatening stance of the United States and Soviet Union that characterized the Cold War. It transfers to Beijing the ideological basis of Soviet behavior as a given for Marxist-Leninist states--even though China's regime has proven decidedly less committed to Communism, while every bit as interested in maintaining authoritarian control through all available means. The Chinese armed forces, known collectively as the People's Liberation Army (PLA), thus is assumed to mirror the approach that the Soviet military had around the world, and especially in Latin America during the 1960s through the early 1990s in Cuba. (1)

A close political or economic arrangement between Latin America and China has been far from inevitable, making the expansion of interactions between the regions over the past decade noteworthy. President Jiang Zemin traveled the region in April 2001, even as U.S. and Chinese officials negotiated the repatriation of the U.S. EP-3 aircraft that landed in China after it collided with a PLA fighter off the Chinese coast. In November 2004, President Hu Jintao received immense press coverage as he toured the major capitals of South America in conjunction with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Santiago, Chile. Chinese leaders have often travelled to the region since then and have welcomed several of their Latin American counterparts to Beijing. (2) Similarly, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cultivated strong ties with his Chinese counterpart partially in an attempt to shift his petroleum sales from the United States to China. Numerous trade missions traverse the Pacific from each side in the hope of strengthening economic benefits for both China and various countries in South America. China seeks extractive resources and Latin American countries seek to both sell their goods and be given the opportunity to access a vast Chinese market.

It is not entirely clear, however, whether access to resources is all Beijing seeks to accomplish in Latin America. It does not seem that China seeks to challenge the Monroe Doctrine--a near two-hundred year old U.

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China's Use of the Military Instrument in Latin America: Not Yet the Biggest Stick


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