By: Kamilia Lahrichi

In 1823, US President James Monroe issued what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, stating that further efforts by outsiders to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America would be greeted as acts of aggression and would be regarded as requiring US intervention.

That hasn’t stopped an increasingly assertive Beijing from playing in the US’s backyard, intensifying its military relations and activities following Xi Jinping’s courting of resource-rich states of the region last week. In November 2010, it demonstrated its military strength by conducting its first bilateral military exercise in Latin America with the first brigade of special operations in Peru. In July, senior military officers from various Latin American countries attended a 10-day defense forum hosted by China’s Ministry of Defense in Beijing. China organized a similar forum in 2012.

“This is just a training course in defense for Latin American officers,” said Eduardo Codianni, Adviser in the Undersecretary of International Affairs of Defense in Argentina’s Ministry of Defense, to “foster understanding and promote cooperation” of Latin American strategic partners on China’s defense strategy, such as its territorial claims over Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

If you want peace, prepare for war

Notwithstanding China’s eagerness to market itself as non-threatening, the world’s second military power – after the United States – is not such a benevolent actor on the international stage. Representative of Beijing’s more forthright stance, the PRC government announced an increase of its military budget to almost US$132 billion for 2014, a 12.2 percent rise over last year.

It contends that this increase in defense expenditure is primarily meant to raise staff salaries as China’s defense strategy is “purely defensive in nature.” But more realistically, China has embarked on a massive military modernization program since 1997 to safeguard its ever-expanding economic interests throughout the world. With a 2.3-million active force, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the largest on the planet.

China has also modernized its navy, considering the vast weight of Chinese shipping of raw materials from Latin America. This is also a means for Beijing, embroiled in territorial spats in the South China Sea, to more aggressively assert its territorial claims.

China is the only nation in the Asia Pacific that acquired an aircraft carrier. It will be able to deploy a carrier battle group in other oceans within three years.

“The difference is that not having [an aircraft carrier] means that you have a defense military. Having one means that you are a war machine ready for action,” explains Juan Pablo Cardenal, author of China’s Silent Conquest.

Military budgets on the rise

In light of this, Beijing is taking advantage of Latin America’s significant growth of its military budget to sell weapons to the region and strengthen bilateral defense ties.

Latin America’s percentage increase in military spending outpaced other regions’ in 2010, according to a study by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The organization monitors developments in military expenditure worldwide.

This was the world’s largest increase – 5.8 percent in real terms compared to 5.2 percent for Africa, 2.8 percent for North America, 2.5 percent for the Middle East and 1.4 percent for Asia.

In 2013, Latin America spent almost US$77 billion on defense, compared with about US$38 billion in 2006, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank based in Washington D.C. Although the region’s soaring military expenditure is largely due to its strong economic growth rather than military ambitions, it is likely to further military trade with Beijing.

Arms trade

As equipment modernization is crucial for Latin America’s security, China has sold weapons to its traditional allies of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) – a socialist bloc fostering integration and cooperation in the region.

In the past decade, China sold Karakorum (K-8) jets worth US$58 million to Bolivia and air surveillance systems worth US$150 million to Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has discussed buying up to 40 K-8s. In 2009, Ecuador approved the purchase of Chinese radar antennas.

Equally significant, weapons sales have extended to non-ALBA states. For example, Argentina and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation have produced a CZ-W11 ultra-light helicopter. Argentina’s Defense Ministry is considering increasing the purchase of more helicopters. In 2010, Beijing donated military materiel worth US$300 million to Peru.

Securing waterway routes

China is strengthening its military clout in Latin America because of its need to protect its economic interests in the region. Securing sea-lanes linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is crucial to ensure the flow of commodities to Chinese ports.

In this regard, a Hong Kong-based development group reached an exclusive 50-year agreement with Nicaragua in June 2013 to build a 173-mile-long canal and handle global trading and shipping.

The Hong Kong group has complete freedom to rule over critical technical issues such as rates and prioritization of ships. The project costs US$40 billion, nearly four times Nicaragua’s annual gross domestic product.

“The construction of the new channel cannot be conceived without a military alliance that provides an umbrella to such large investments that come, in particular, from China,” says Gabriel Marcella, Director of the Americas Studies at the U.S. Army War College.

Safeguarding critical waterways is also a means to hold sway over a major trading route, thereby rivaling the quasi-monopoly of the Panama Canal.

“For the Chinese, who have always believed that the Panama Canal still ‘belongs to the United States’, the strategic military value [of building the Nicaragua canal] will be the ability to send warships through with relative comfort. There will not be any surreptitious monitoring because of the comfort that [Chinese] will have regarding leverage over both the company that runs the canal, as well as the Nicaraguan government,” says Evan Ellis, Professor of National Security Studies with the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in the United States.

Military technology transfer

Likewise, the transfer of military technology from China to Latin American countries has increased. Beijing built Bolivia’s telecommunications satellite Tupac Katari, which was launched into orbit in December 2013 from the Xichang space center. The satellite is also a tool to consolidate control centers and gather intelligence to minimize risks and disasters in the country.

In addition, China built Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar satellite or Venesat-1 in 2008 and Miranda satellite in 2012. Beijing controls the satellites too. The Miranda is an observation platform to monitor mainly military operations and urban planning.

“By virtue of the fact that Venesat -1 and Tupac Katari are communication relay satellites, […] the ground stations to which they downlink, and the telecommunications infrastructure linking those stations to other facilities, it would be relatively easy, in principle, for the Chinese to intercept signals passing through those satellites,” Ellis said.

In other words, Beijing could use these satellites to “collect electronic or other data to monitor American forces within the scope of its sensors, or help the People’s Liberation Army and units allied to coordinate their operations in the hemisphere,” he added.

Win-win situation

On the other hand, China’s failed attempts to sell military equipment to Latin America have cast doubt on the quality of Chinese goods. For instance, Argentina canceled the purchase of armored vehicles WMZ-551 from China and overturned plans to purchase the helicopter X-11. Peru withdrew its interest in acquiring MBT-2000 tanks from China. Ecuador too revoked a procurement of JYL-2 radars from China.

Regardless, Beijing offers an interesting alternative to Latin American states that the international community deemed pariahs, increasing trade with Venezuela after the US banned arms sales to Caracas in 2006 over a supposed lack of commitment to counterterrorism efforts.

In addition, Xi Jinping’s charm offensive in the region enabled China to upgrade its relations with Venezuela and Argentina to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. This shed light on China’s rapprochement with two resource-rich states that have shifted their foreign policy from dependence to Washington to a progressive rapprochement with Beijing and Moscow.

“The advance of relations between Argentina and China somehow breaks away from [Argentina’s] international relations of the 1980s when we always depended on the United States. […] In the case of China, the bilateral defense relation is indicative of a strong strategic relation, which has to do with very strong political and commercial ties,” said Roberto De Luise, Undersecretary of International Affairs of Defense in Argentina’s Ministry of Defense.

Today, both nations’ defense interests converge. Argentina backs China’s territorial claims over Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea. Beijing supports Buenos Aires’ claim over the Falklands/Malvinas archipelago, where Argentina and England fought a brief but bloody war in 1982.

Most importantly, there are no strings attached to military trade with China – in stark contrast to the conditions imposed by the United States.

“China offers very good conditions of funding [to buy military material]. […] Besides, Argentina can learn a lot from China’s undeniable technological and scientific advances,” says De Luise.

China’s Monroe doctrine?

The buoyant mood at the U.S. embassy in Argentina does not reflect the reality on the ground.

“The United States welcomes the emergence of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China that plays a responsible role in world affairs. We encourage China to develop mutually beneficial relations throughout Latin America that uphold international trade and investment standards of transparency and good governance while also respecting local regulations,” says a spokesman at the U.S. embassy in Argentina.

In fact, China’s burgeoning military influence in Latin America is nerve-racking for the US. The heyday of the Monroe Doctrine is over. More leftist governments have come to power in Latin America and they are determined to decrease US sway over the southern hemisphere.

“The fact that China is not currently seeking exclusive anti-U.S. military alliances through engagement [with Latin American countries], however, does not make it any less worrisome from the perspective of the U.S. pursuit of its own foreign policy agenda in the region,” Ellis concluded.

Kamila Lahrichi is a multimedia journalist based in Buenos Aires, covering relations between China and Latin America. Her other articles are available at www.kamilialahrichi.com