BY EVAN ELLIS
When the government of Panama assumed control of the Panama Canal in 1997, one of its first major decision with the strategic waterway newly under its control was to award concessions for the operation of key ports on either end to the Hong-Kong based logistics firm Hutchison-Whampoa. Strategic analysts at the time warned of a major military play by “Red China” in the “US backyard. In the 13 years that have followed, trade between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Latin America has expanded almost twenty-fold, accumulated Chinese capital stock in the region has doubled, and Chinese banks have loaned Latin American regimes tens of billions of dollars for development projects, yet Chinese military activities in the region have remained relatively modest.
As Chinese commerce with Latin America has expanded exponentially, its military engagement with the region remains one of the most closely watched, and arguably least understood dimensions of its relationship with the region. This article advances three arguments fundamental to understanding Chinese military engagement with Latin America:
1. Although PRC-Latin America military ties, to date, have been limited, they are more substantial and expanding far more rapidly than is commonly realized.
2. Chinese military engagement in the region supports a strategic concept completely different from those guiding Soviet initiatives in Latin America during the cold war, yet presenting an equally significant challenge to the US position globally over the long term.
3. In the long-term, Chinese commercial activities in Latin America supports the PRC strategic military position in a possible conflict with the United States, without implying that the PRC either seeks, or expects, such a conflict.
Chinese engagement with Latin America that is explicitly military in nature includes arms sales, visits and professional exchanges, and operations by the People’s Liberation Army in the region.
With respect to arms sales, China’s military industries have behaved much like their commercial counterparts, initially selling unsophisticated goods such as uniforms and non-lethal equipment through the intermediation of Latin American firms with direct ties to those militaries. The Chinese government has facilitated this process with donations such goods, including $1 million per year in items such as gloves and hats to the Colombian armed forces, and more recently, $4.5 million in two successive donations to the Jamaican Defense Force. Since 2006, the PRC has periodically donated more sophisticated, yet not strictly military equipment to the Bolivian armed forces, including busses, light trucks, outboard motors, and night vision goggles.
At the same time, the PRC has also leveraged the receptivity of regimes of the Boliviarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) to introduce more sophisticated military platforms into the region, establishing a precedent and a presence for selling such goods to other nations of Latin America. Examples include Chinese sales of 18 K-8 fighters to Venezuela in 2010, which helped to convince Bolivia’s president Evo Morales to order 6 K-8s for his own armed forces. Similarly, Venezuela’s purchase of Chinese JYL-1 military radars opened the door for Ecuador to accept two Chinese radars for evaluation, and ultimately purchase four.
In other cases, Venezuela has not played a role, including the acquisition of Chinese MA-60 transport aircraft by Ecuador and Bolivia, or Bolivia’s purchase of 6 Chinese H425 transport helicopters, albeit for use in the oil industry.
Beyond the regimes of ALBA, Chinese attempts to sell military end items in Latin America have run into problems. Argentina terminated its purchase of Chinese WMZ-551 Armored personnel carriers after acquiring only four vehicles. Peru cancelled plans to acquire Chinese MBT-2000 tanks, publicly announced by the Peruvian Defense Minister, when the Ukrainian supplier of engines for the tank could not support the procurement. Argentina backed away from interest in the Chinese X-11 helicopter, reportedly due to pressure from France, which alleged that the X-11 was an unlicensed copy of a French helicopter.
Beyond PRC military sales to Latin America, virtually all of the countries of the region that diplomatically recognize China send military officers to courses at the PLA Defense Studies Institute in Changping, with some also sending students to the PLA Navy Command School and the Army Command College near Nanjing, and a special forces school near Shijiazhuang. There are regular visits between Latin American defense leaders and China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, as well as with Guo Boxiong and Xu Caiho, the senior Communist Party members on the PRC Central Military Commission, considered by China experts to be the functional military leadership of the country.
The activities of Chinese military forces in Latin America are also expanding, with a focus on humanitarian activities. This form of engagement allows the PLA to strengthen ties with its Latin American counterparts and gain experience operating in the region in a context that appears non-threatening and is politically difficult for the United States to object to. Since September 2004, the PLA has maintained a contingent of military police in Haiti as part of the multinational MINUSTAH peacekeeping force. In November 2010, The PLA conducted its first bilateral military exercise in Latin America, an operations with the Peruvian 1st Special Operations brigade in Chorillos involving a mobile field hospital being donated by the PRC, responding to a simulated disaster involving earthquake. The exercise arguably sets the stage for the PLA to deploy to Peru in the future to assist in the response to a real disaster. Most recently, in December 2011, the PRC deployed its first hospital ship, N866, to the Caribbean, with port calls providing medical services and building goodwill in Jamaica, Cuba, Trinidad and Costa Rica.
The PRC also believed to be present in facilities in Lourdes, Santiago, and Bejucal Cuba, used by the Soviet Union during the Cold War to monitor the US, although evidence concerning the Chinese presence there is disputed.
In evaluating Chinese military engagement with the region, it is important to recognize that such engagement is designed principally to support PRC strategic commercial objectives; in the short term, China explicitly seeks to avoid a “threatening” posture that could lead the West to act in concert to block PRC access to markets and technologies critical to its continued expansion.
In this framework, military engagement in Latin America currently yields four types of benefits to the PRC: (1) to promote good relationships with Latin American militaries, a key institution in most Latin countries, as the PRC strives to understand, anticipate, and maintain commercial access to those countries, (2) to establish relationships with security forces important in protecting the growing number of Chinese nationals and companies in the region, (3) to sell products that help strategically important Chinese defense industries to survive and increase their capabilities, and (4) to establish a strategic posture for waging an asymmetric war against a US, if as is feared, the US attempts to “block its rise” in the future.
This article most emphatically does not argue that the PRC wants, or even expects, a war with the United States. Rather, as responsible military planners look at such an eventuality, they likely consider how to leverage both military engagement and the evolving commercial posture in the region to position the PRC more favorably for such a struggle.
From the perspective of such planning, the position of the PRC is greatly enhanced by the port facilities and logistics services it operates in the region, including not only the Hutchison-Whampoa facilities on both sides of the Panama Canal, but also the major container port in Freeport, the Bahamas, its presence in the Veracruz, Lazaro Cardenas, Manzanillo and ??? container terminals in Mexico, and the regular service between China and Latin America now provided by China Shipping, COSCO, HanJin, and Pil, among others. In the lead-up to and execution of a conflict, each provides options for smuggling personnel and equipment into the region, and for conducting sustainment and resupply operations fighting broke out. What would be required is the cooperation of these PRC-headquartered firms with the Chinese government, and sufficient time in the lead-up to a crisis to covertly outfit such facilities to support military activities. The Chinese have already demonstrated the use of commercial shipping in military operations in the evacuation of personnel from Somalia in 1991, and Libya in 2011.
As with logistics, Chinese computer and telecommunication activities in Latin America also could be leveraged in time of conflict. Companies such as Huawei, ZTE, and Shanghai Alcatel Bell are providing increasing portions of Latin America’s communications infrastructure, and in combination with Lenovo and others, its personal computing and communication devices.
While these companies do not work for the PLA, with appropriate advance planning, their Latin American networks could be used to either gather or disrupt information being passed over non-secure communications channels. Similarly, China-built Latin American space assets such as the Venezuelan communications satellite Venesat-1, the Bolivian communications satellite Tupac Katari, and the Venezuelan remote sensing satellite (VRSS-1), could be used to collect electronic data or otherwise monitor US forces within their range of sensing, or help PLA and allied units in the hemisphere coordinate their operations. In both the Venezuelan and Bolivian cases, the space architecture involves satellites built entirely by the Chinese communicating with ground stations built and initially manned by PRC technicians, connected to infrastructures built by Chinese telecommunications companies.
The purpose of the aforementioned analysis is not to promote fear of the PRC, or provide evidence of its “bad intentions” against the United States, but to understand the character and implications of PRC military engagement with the region. If the militaries of all nations prepare for wars they hope will never come, it becomes even more important to maintain relations of transparency and confidence with the PRC, and to ensure that the prudent preparation for an undesirable conflict does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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