China-Latin America Military Engagement: Good Will, Good Business, and Strategic Position
Authored by Dr. R Evan Ellis.
This monograph examines Chinese military engagement with Latin America in five areas: (1) meetings between senior military officials; (2) lower-level military-to-military interactions; (3) military sales; (4) military-relevant commercial interactions; and, (5) Chinese physical presence within Latin America, all of which have military-strategic implications. This monograph finds that the level of PRC military engagement with the region is higher than is generally recognized, and has expanded in important ways in recent years: High-level trips by Latin American defense and security personnel to the PRC and visits by their Chinese counterparts to Latin America have become commonplace. The volume and sophistication of Chinese arms sold to the region has increased. Officer exchange programs, institutional visits, and other lower-level ties have also expanded. Chinese military personnel have begun participating in operations in the region in a modest, yet symbolically important manner. The monograph also argues that in the short term, PRC military engagement with Latin America does not focus on establishing alliances or base access to the United States, but rather, supporting objectives of national development and regime survival, such as building understanding and political leverage among important commercial partners, creating the tools to protect PRC interests in the countries where it does business, and selling Chinese products and moving up the value-added chain in strategically important sectors. It concludes that Chinese military engagement may both contribute to legitimate regional security needs, and foster misunderstanding. It argues that the U.S. should work for greater transparency with the PRC in regard to those activities, as well as to analyze how the Chinese presence will impact the calculation of the region’s actors in the context of specific future scenarios.
Over the past several years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has expanded its military ties with Latin America in multiple important ways. High-level trips by Latin American defense and security personnel to the PRC and visits by their Chinese counterparts have become commonplace. The volume and sophistication of Chinese arms sold to the region has increased. Officer exchange programs, institutional visits, and other lower-level ties have also expanded. Chinese military personnel have begun participating in operations in the region in a modest, yet symbolically important manner.
Military engagement among Western countries traditionally has focused on securing greater capability for confronting an adversary, including alliances and base access agreements, that confer strategic geographical position. By contrast, Chinese military engagement primarily supports broader objectives of national development and regime survival. This includes building good will, understanding, and political leverage among important commercial partners and technology sources, creating the tools to protect PRC interests in countries where it does business, selling Chinese products and moving up the value-added chain in strategically important sectors, and positioning the PRC strategically, even while avoiding alarming the United States over its activities in the region.
Chinese military engagement with the region may be understood in terms of five interrelated types of activities: (1) meetings between senior military officials, (2) lower-level military-to-military interactions, (3) military sales, (4) military-relevant commercial interactions, and (5) Chinese physical presence within Latin America with military-strategic implications.
Based on official visits documented in the press, the number of visits by senior Chinese defense officials to Latin America, and visits by their counterparts to China, has increased over the past several years. In the second half of 2010, the number of contacts was particularly high, including nine visits at the Minister of Defense or Chief of Staff level between senior Chinese military officials and their Latin American counterparts, in Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.
The PRC has expanded the quantity and scope of its military-to-military contacts at the institutional level, including its ongoing participation in the peacekeeping mission in Haiti and an increasing number of personnel exchanges for training and education, joint exercises, institutional visits, and symbolic activities. Chinese institutions host Latin American military personnel from at least 18 states in Latin America in a range of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) institutions including the PLA Defense Studies Institute in Changping; the Army Command College and the Chinese Navy Command School, both in the vicinity of Nanjing; and a facility in Shijiazhuang. In November 2010, the PLA also conducted its first bilateral military exercise in the region, the humanitarian assistance exercise Angel de la Paz.
In the domain of military sales, Chinese activities in Latin America are also much more extensive than is generally recognized. Although such sales were once impeded by concerns over quality, maintenance, and logistics support, Chinese arms conglomerates such as NORINCO are moving up the value-added chain, leveraging the opening provided by Venezuelan purchases of K-8 aircraft and JYL-1 radars, selling similar equipment to Venezuelan allies Ecuador and Bolivia, and proving their goods in the region in general. Other landmark purchases include the lease of MA-60 transport aircraft to Bolivia, with a sale of 4 of the same aircraft under negotiation with Ecuador, as well as the sale of WMZ-551 armored personnel carriers to Argentina, and the subsequently cancelled sale of MBT-2000 main battle tanks to Peru. Training of military personnel, as well as command and control packages such as that by Huawei for the Venezuelan organization DICOFAN, have also been important, as has the donation of nonlethal goods. Bolivia stands out for the quantities of trucks, busses, and other goods donated to the Bolivian military by the PLA since 2006, as does Jamaica, whose very small defense force received a $3.5 million donation of nonlethal goods in the months following the exposure of serious capability gaps associated with its forced entry into the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood.
In addition to arms sales and contacts between the PLA and Latin American militaries, select commercial interactions must be considered as part of its military engagement. In Latin America, this includes collaboration between the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer and China Aviation Industrial Corporation (CAIC) II to produce ERJ-145s business jets in Harbin, China, as well as sales of Y-12 turboprop aircraft to Venezuela. In the space industry, ties include four major ongoing space-related projects in Latin America, the China-Brazil Earth Research Satellite (CBERS), Venesat-1, the Venezuela Remote Sensing Satellite, and the Tupac Katari satellite, as well as other projects in development and more modest collaboration initiatives. In the telecommunications industry, Chinese firms such as Huawei and ZTE are major players in the leading nations of Central and South America.
Finally, China has a low-profile but important physical military presence in Latin America , including military police in Haiti since September 2004, as well as a reported presence in at least three Soviet-era monitoring facilities: Lourdes, Bejucal,1 and Santiago de Cuba.2 In addition, the presence of Chinese logistics companies in major ports of the region could facilitate operations by the PRC in the region should relations between the United States and the PRC significantly worsen in the coming decades.
In analyzing the implications of the Chinese military presence in the region, this author recognizes that such presence can contribute to legitimate regional security needs, but also foment misunderstanding. It argues that the United States should work with China to achieve greater transparency regarding those activities, and to engage the PRC in a positive fashion regarding their activities in the hemisphere, including regular dialogue and the establishment of mechanisms for resolving misunderstanding. In addition, however, it must improve its understanding of the specific dangers and threats that could flow out of this presence, using methodologies such as scenario-based gaming, to see how different actors in the region could seek to leverage or be influenced in their actions by the presence of China, including indirect pressures, and how the commercial and other interests in Latin America of actors such as Russia, Iran, and India might play into the unfolding dynamic.
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