Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Why Is China Bolstering Military Ties in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Chinese military leaders have had close contact in recent years with their counterparts in Latin America. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are pictured in Beijing in 2015. // File Photo: Venezuelan Government. Chinese military leaders have had close contact in recent years with their counterparts in Latin America. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are pictured in Beijing in 2015. // File Photo: Venezuelan Government.

Chinese military leaders visited with their counterparts in Latin America 215 times between 2002 and 2019, according to a report released last year by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Chile, Cuba, Brazil and Argentina accounted for more than half of those visits, according to the report. Additionally, China and the CELAC bloc of Latin American and Caribbean nations last December agreed to continue collaboration on military issues through the China-Latin America High-Level Defense Forum. To what extent is China using its economic power to project military influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, and what are its goals? Should the United States be alarmed by Chinese military involvement in the region, and should Washington be doing more to counter Chinese military activity? How have recent geopolitical developments, and China’s close ties with Russia, influenced how the United States perceives the Asian giant’s engagement in the Western Hemisphere?

Margaret Myers, director of the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue: “China’s increasingly extensive engagement with Latin American militaries should be understood within the context of a much larger and even more expansive public diplomacy initiative, involving what I’ve termed a ‘tangled web of overlapping interactions and a kaleidoscopic cast of characters.’ It is also a critical feature of the Belt and Road Initiative, which though often considered to be an infrastructure platform, is, in actuality, dedicated to building connectivity in many forms, including through people-to-people ties. China’s more than 200 military visits, the China-CELAC High-Level Defense Forum, educational exchanges between military academies, Chinese tech company engagement with military institutions and satellite and other cooperation are all part of an overall proliferation of diplomatic, commercial and education activities, which feature across really all economic sectors, in multiple areas of policy interest and in the security space, as noted. China’s transport infrastructure construction and acquisitions are also of some concern to the United States defense community. Many worry that China-owned port facilities will eventually be used for military purposes. This is still hypothetical in Latin America and the Caribbean, but ports in other regions are thought to have (or are developing) military uses. China-invested infrastructure with possible ‘dual use’ applications will be closely monitored by the United States in the coming years. So will Chinese military collaborations with Venezuela and Cuba.”

Jiang Shixue, professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Shanghai University: “Apart from trade and investment, China’s relations with Latin American countries cover many areas, including military. This is not a secret. China’s two policy papers on Latin America, published in 2008 and 2016, clearly state that China wishes to promote military cooperation with Latin America. Judging from what China and Latin America have done in this area, we can reach the following conclusions. First, this kind of cooperation simply focuses on nontraditional security issues such as counterterrorism, training, technology transfers, medical services and peacekeeping operations. Second, military trade between the two sides conforms to international rules and China’s own principles—including contributing to a country’s legitimate need for self-defense, promotion of world peace or regional stability and noninterference in a country’s internal affairs. The third conclusion we can draw is that China understands clearly that Latin America is the ‘backyard’ of the United States and that the Monroe Doctrine is still ‘as relevant today as it was on the day it was written,’ as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in early 2018. Therefore, China does not wish to challenge the United States’ traditional sphere of influence. That is why Washington does not need to be alarmed by Chinese military cooperation with Latin America.”

R. Evan Ellis, Latin America research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute: “The strategic importance of China, and the lure of its markets, loans and investments opens the door to engagement with the Chinese military, commonly known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China’s influence in world affairs is more appealing to some Latin American leaders than is the quality of their weapons, training or military education programs. The military cooperation gives the PLA knowledge about Latin American military institutions, infrastructure and conditions. The Chinese also learn which military officials would be open to the idea of helping the PLA operate in the region if called upon to do so in the future. The most likely scenario that would spark a war between the United States and China would be if the latter invaded Taiwan or made aggressive maritime claims elsewhere. The PLA is not yet sufficiently globalized enough to support a formal base in the Western Hemisphere and would probably prefer to avoid the expense and regional provocation of doing so. Yet the knowledge the PLA gains from its regular engagement might help it project military influence in the region in order to collect intelligence, create diversionary crises or put the United States homeland and its deployments in Asia at risk. The anti-American populist regimes which today allow Russia to project threats against the United States (Venezuela, Nicaragua and to an extent Cuba) would most likely host PLA forces in a future conflict. More geographically distant Chinese partners such as Argentina might also opportunistically bet against the United States under the right conditions. Others, such as Peru or Colombia, would only be welcoming to PLA forces in a conflict after leftist populist governments had years to purge and restructure currently pro-U.S. militaries, as happened in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.” 

Ralph Espach, senior research scientist at defense and security research company CNA: “China’s military outreach to Latin America bears watching but is not yet cause for alarm. Meetings and agreements have increased, and China offers training for Latin American military and police officers, but China’s weapons sales are insignificant, and it does not have the presence that other countries do, particularly the United States. In military relations, the United States and its democratic regional partners have built up a dense, interinstitutional framework for constant dialogue and routine cooperation. Issues such as instability and insecurity in Central America and some Caribbean countries are not only burdens for governments in the region, but for the United States as well: trafficking of drugs and people, gun smuggling, organized crime, corruption and natural disasters. We address them together, and the United States government provides critical training and support. China builds goodwill and influence in financial and economic matters, but it is more difficult for it to do so in the military sphere. The Chinese Communist Party has more success engaging with civilian leaders and communities than military ones, especially when it is willing to accept financial losses and pay bribes in order to curry favor. Most concerning are cases where governments face severe crises and where Western partners are holding back. Argentina, for example, is in perpetual financial trouble, and its leaders have shown a willingness to sign questionable long-term agreements for financial and development assistance. The Argentine government has allowed Beijing to set up a space research station in the country, but Argentine officials are granted only limited access. The country can also offer China a logistical base for access to Antarctica, which could have enormous strategic significance in the decades to come. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine came only days after Argentina’s president offered up his country as a gateway for Russia into South America. That episode should increase awareness among leaders across the region about the risks of becoming a pawn in the great power competition.” 


Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.

Related Links

Suggested Content

The Politics Of Disaster Relief

After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, the aftershock reached China in ways that few anticipated.The earthquake forced Chinese leaders to navigate the tricky politics of disaster relief.