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Washington Must Respond to China’s Growing Military Presence in Latin America

Colombia’s designation as a major non-NATO ally comes at a critical moment.

By , the special assistant and speechwriter to Gen. Laura Richardson, the combatant commander of U.S. Southern Command, and , a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Argentine President Alberto Fernández at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Feb. 6.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Argentine President Alberto Fernández at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Feb. 6.
Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Argentine President Alberto Fernández at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Feb. 6. Liu Weibing/Xinhua via Getty Images

The fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to reverberate around the world, including in Latin America and the Caribbean. During his meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque last week, U.S. President Joe Biden commended Colombia for condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions and announced that the United States would designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally. This means one more Latin American partner in the fight to counter Russian global influence, especially as Russia strengthens its ties with authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. But there is also a longer-term strategic threat facing the United States and its Latin American and Caribbean partners: China’s growing presence in the region and, in particular, its military presence.

Latin America experts often discuss Beijing’s trade and investment in the region, especially those projects run under its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Twenty-one Latin American and Caribbean countries have now joined the BRI, according to the Congressional Research Service, including Argentina, the most recent signatory and largest economy of the group. However, focusing predominantly on China’s economic and trade relationship to the region misses an alarming trend observed elsewhere in the world, which may well repeat itself in Latin America and the Caribbean: China often leverages seemingly innocuous commercial interests for military purposes.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been strengthening its military-to-military relations within Latin America and the Caribbean in recent decades. Since the early 2000s, senior PLA leaders have conducted more than 200 visits to the region to meet their counterparts. China has established a high-level defense forum with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and offers professional military education to Latin American and Caribbean military personnel. The PLA also sends its own military personnel to the region to receive special training in jungle warfare. China has sold arms, aircraft, tanks, and other military equipment to several Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia, and has helped its partners there develop space satellites and ground control architecture. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has also visited several ports in the region, some as close to the United States as Cuba.

The fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to reverberate around the world, including in Latin America and the Caribbean. During his meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque last week, U.S. President Joe Biden commended Colombia for condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions and announced that the United States would designate Colombia as a major non-NATO ally. This means one more Latin American partner in the fight to counter Russian global influence, especially as Russia strengthens its ties with authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. But there is also a longer-term strategic threat facing the United States and its Latin American and Caribbean partners: China’s growing presence in the region and, in particular, its military presence.

Latin America experts often discuss Beijing’s trade and investment in the region, especially those projects run under its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Twenty-one Latin American and Caribbean countries have now joined the BRI, according to the Congressional Research Service, including Argentina, the most recent signatory and largest economy of the group. However, focusing predominantly on China’s economic and trade relationship to the region misses an alarming trend observed elsewhere in the world, which may well repeat itself in Latin America and the Caribbean: China often leverages seemingly innocuous commercial interests for military purposes.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been strengthening its military-to-military relations within Latin America and the Caribbean in recent decades. Since the early 2000s, senior PLA leaders have conducted more than 200 visits to the region to meet their counterparts. China has established a high-level defense forum with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and offers professional military education to Latin American and Caribbean military personnel. The PLA also sends its own military personnel to the region to receive special training in jungle warfare. China has sold arms, aircraft, tanks, and other military equipment to several Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia, and has helped its partners there develop space satellites and ground control architecture. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has also visited several ports in the region, some as close to the United States as Cuba.

This burgeoning military relationship will likely deepen as China seeks more ways to project its power globally. For instance, the 2022-2024 joint action plan between China and CELAC stipulates that the defense forum will continue to deepen cooperation in fighting transnational organized crime, nuclear proliferation, and violent extremism. Further, current trends in the region—such as Nicaragua’s recent switch of diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China and upcoming elections in key U.S. security partners Colombia and Brazil—where the left-leaning candidates currently lead the polls—augur well for deeper Chinese engagement.

As its influence in the region grows, China could use its military ties as bargaining chips to pressure the United States and its allies, perhaps threatening to send troops or increase personnel and equipment in countries close to the U.S. border. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow could “neither confirm nor exclude” deploying troops and equipment to Venezuela and Cuba if tensions with the United States escalated over Ukraine. Just weeks ago, a Russian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov visited Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, signing a series of cooperation agreements. Indeed, there is little to stop China from borrowing Russia’s playbook if tensions with the United States and its allies rise over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Russian doctrine has long linked its European policy with the need to counterbalance the United States in Latin America.

China often leverages seemingly innocuous commercial interests for military purposes.

More covertly, two recent developments in the Middle East and Africa may serve as harbingers for Latin American and Caribbean countries in terms of how China’s economic ties to the region serve as a foray to develop its military capabilities there as well. China has allegedly attempted to build a clandestine military facility at a port in the United Arab Emirates and is reportedly seeking to construct a military base in Equatorial Guinea.

In recent years, China has become one of the UAE’s largest trading partners and the largest consumer of Gulf oil. It is no surprise, then, that the Chinese shipping conglomerate Cosco built and now operates a commercial container terminal in the port of Khalifa, about 50 miles north of Abu Dhabi, to facilitate these commercial ties. However, the Wall Street Journal reported last November that U.S. intelligence agencies had detected a large excavation site at the port, which they suspected of having military purposes. Apparently, the Emirati government was unaware of the military nature of the project, and construction of that facility has been halted for now. The UAE denied that there was any plan or agreement to host any kind of Chinese military installation, and the Chinese Embassy in Washington remained silent on the topic.

In December 2021, the Journal reported that China sought to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean, most likely in Equatorial Guinea at the port of Bata, a deep-water commercial port on the Gulf of Guinea built and developed by two Chinese state-owned companies, the China Communications Construction Co. and the China Road and Bridge Corp. In congressional testimony in April 2021, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, stated that the “most significant threat” from China would be establishing a port on the Atlantic “where they can rearm with munitions and repair naval vessels.” Neither Equatorial Guinea’s oil minister nor its ambassador to the United States responded to the Journal’s inquiries.

These two events are part of a disturbing pattern, whereby China has attempted to expand infrastructure projects—some run under the BRI—beyond their original purpose. Chinese military officials, policymakers, and analysts will often shy away from the term “overseas military base” because it carries the historical baggage of European colonialism; rather, they use the term “strategic strong points” to ensure naval access and resupply. When the PLA established its first naval base in Djibouti in 2017, it called the base a “logistics facility,” and its stated intention was to conduct anti-piracy and peacekeeping operations. Yet the PLA is now building a large naval pier on that base that could potentially support an aircraft carrier. The PLA Navy could potentially use port projects in Pakistan and Sri Lanka for naval access, too.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in Latin America and the Caribbean, China has built the requisite commercial foundations to leverage a similar strategy. In the past two decades, Chinese companies have built or are planning to build 150 transportation infrastructure projects—and dozens of them have port facilities or expansion elements.

“These [projects] include seven port operations by PRC-based Hutchison Port Holdings in Mexico, three in Panama, three in the Bahamas and one in Buenos Aires, Argentina,” Evan Ellis, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last year. Additionally, Ellis said Chinese firms are also engaged in port construction projects in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Jamaica and that “there is also potential for Chinese advances in ports in other areas,” including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Guyana.

All of these port projects are situated around sea lines of communication and strategic choke points essential for global commerce and military operations, especially the port operations around the Panama Canal, the Caribbean, and a potential “polar logistics” facility in Ushuaia, Argentina, near the Strait of Magellan and the closest departure point to Antarctica. It is possible that these ports could be for “dual-use” purposes, meaning that the PLA Navy may request naval access in the near future.

If the U.S.-China strategic competition grows into a hotter conflict, China could also leverage these strategically located ports to disrupt U.S. commercial and naval access in the Western Hemisphere. In recent years, China has wielded its commercial might to retaliate against Australia for demanding an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, India for ongoing territorial disputes, and Lithuania for increasing ties with Taiwan. China’s economic ties to Latin America would permit it to easily replicate those same tactics in the Americas.

As sovereign nations, Latin American and Caribbean governments have the right to engage with any other country in a host of areas—commercial, military, and otherwise. Some may argue that China’s military engagement in the region—though a national security risk for the United States—is ultimately a boon for Latin American and Caribbean governments, which gain potentially cheaper options for military equipment and training than usually higher-quality but more expensive alternatives from the United States and Western allies. Countries may even seek to play the superpowers off each other, maximizing their own interests in trade, investment, and security. However, the danger lies in the lack of transparency of Chinese contracts. As in the UAE, governments are often unaware of the potential dual-use military capacity of the commercial projects they sign up for. This should serve as a lesson for Latin American and Caribbean governments to ensure that the deals they enter into with Chinese counterparts are devoid of hidden clauses that may unnecessarily jeopardize their country’s sovereignty.

But governments should also consider how increased military engagement with China might affect their long-standing partnerships with the United States and other Western countries. Most Latin American and Caribbean countries frequently work with the U.S. military to counter common regional threats, such as transnational criminal organizations, cyberattacks, and natural disasters linked to climate change. They also participate in a host of annual military exercises hosted by U.S. Southern Command (for which one of us, Leland Lazarus, works). Significant training exercises with the PLA or PLA Navy will make China more familiar with military doctrine in Latin American and Caribbean countries and could lead to increased interoperability of regional armed forces.

U.S. officials are also rightfully concerned that the PLA and Chinese government-backed hacking groups could use increased engagement with Latin American and Caribbean partners to spy on U.S. officials and steal sensitive U.S. military technology, plans, or tactics. In December 2021, a Chinese hacking group was accused of hacking and spying on 29 countries, 17 of them in the region. If, at some point, a Latin American and Caribbean country insists on engaging with Chinese military counterparts, the United States may be left with no choice but to limit its security cooperation with that country to protect its own national security and intellectual property.

For the United States, the best way to counter China’s growing commercial and military influence in the region is to double down on being its most trusted partner. That includes helping to build regional capacity and domestic institutions that can ward off the most corrosive elements of Chinese engagement; further developing infrastructure financing initiatives from the U.S. International Development Finance Corp.; strengthening security partnerships to compete with China’s efforts; and supporting regional arms industries and small defense industrial bases to provide alternatives to Chinese arms sales.

The United States, as well as its allies and partners, should implement these actions quickly in order to keep pace with China’s military engagement in the region. Indeed, China’s military engagement in other parts of the world provides a road map for where it could take similar engagement in Latin America. It’s only a matter of time before it does.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.

Leland Lazarus is the special assistant and speechwriter to Gen. Laura Richardson, the combatant commander of U.S. Southern Command. He previously worked as a U.S. foreign service officer in China and the Caribbean. Before joining the U.S. government, he was an associate producer at China Central Television and a Fulbright scholar in Panama. His articles and commentary have appeared on Sinica podcast, SupChina, TEDx, the Diplomat, and the National Interest. Twitter: @LelandLazarus

Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he is the director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative. Twitter: @RyanBergPhD

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