Wednesday, April 19, 2006

US Uneasy Over China's Latin American Military Ties

As far as the United States is concerned, China's military matters.

Beijing's growing military role in Latin America--a region Washington has historically seen as within its sphere of influence--is a likely agenda item when Chinese President Hu Jintao meets US President George Bush at the White House for formal talks.

US and Chinese officials did the advance work. Ahead of Thursday's summit, US officials traveled to Beijing for two days of discussions with Chinese officials on their nation's increasing involvement in training and advising armed forces in Latin America. The meetings, which also covered political and economic issues, were reportedly the first between the two countries devoted exclusively to Latin America.

The Pentagon is especially sensitive to the issue. The commander of the US Southern Command, General Bantz Craddock, last month told a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that China's military presence in Latin America is "widespread and growing every day." Craddock said that "more and more Chinese nonlethal equipment" was showing up in the region and that growing numbers of Latin American military officers were going to China for training.

More specifically, Craddock said high-level defense officials from China have made 20 visits to Latin America and the Caribbean, while defense ministers and chiefs from nine regional countries have visited China.

Craddock recently told analysts that entire military units from Latin America are increasingly training and spending time in China.

Chinese analysts say tightening military ties with Latin America are logical and natural in light of their country's growing global reach and influence.

Latin America is rich in oil, metals, timber, and other natural resources China needs to fuel its economic growth.

China's trade with the region has doubled since 2000, to $50 billion a year. The figure, while much smaller than the $800 billion that the US does in business with Latin America each year, is growing rapidly.

Beijing's aim: $100 billion in Latin American trade by 2010.

Military diplomacy is clearly a part of China's expansion strategy. In less than a decade, the world's most populous nation has reportedly established direct, military-to-military relations with Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay.

Cooperation with Brazil began in 1999, with China providing rocket launch expertise in exchange for digital optical technology and access to Brazil's space tracking facilities. On a 2004 visit to China, Brazil's president said he sought stronger bilateral relations, including trade, scientific, cultural and military ties.

It has been relatively easy for China to bond with nations with leftist governments--including Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Their leaders are ideologically inclined to favor China over "imperialist'' America, despite China's love affair with global capitalism. China's opposition to a unipolar--US dominated--world pleases Latin America's populist leaders.

For other Latin American countries, such as Chile, the prime motivation for seeking closer relations with China is trade. Last November, China signed a free trade agreement with Chile--Beijing's first with a Latin American country--and talks are underway with others in the region. But even with Chile, military matters matter. Significant exchanges have taken place between China's National Defense University and Chile's War College. Chilean army officers have also been studying Mandarin Chinese and Chinese history, politics and culture.

China has also tightened its military ties with Venezuela, taking advantage of worsening relations between Caracas and Washington. Major military exchanges have taken place between China and Venezuela; and last August, Caracas purchased three military grade radar systems from Beijing. The systems--including a sophisticated command center--are designed to significantly enhance Venezuela's ability to manage its airspace.

Peru is a wild card for China. In theory, its modest military relations with the mineral-rich country could grow stronger if the plurality winner of Peru's recent presidential elections, Ollanta Humala, wins the second-round runoff contest late next month or in early June. Humala is a populist former army officer (and failed coup plotter), who seems inclined to boost military spending. But he is also an ultranationalist whose well known dislike for the US (and animosity toward neighboring Chile) is matched by his opposition to globalization and foreign investment.

None of which appeals to China. When all is said and done, Beijing's military diplomacy is meant to support--not supplant--its economic policies.

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