The US is keeping a close eye on China's one-on-one time with its neighbors, defense officials say
Chinese engagement with Latin American countries has increased across the board, with growing investments in industry and infrastructure as well as military relationships.
China doesn’t have a military presence in the region, but US defense officials are watching closely as Beijing courts military officials from across the region.
Officials across the US government are watching China’s dealings with the US’s Latin American neighbors closely, including officials from the US Defense Department.
China doesn’t have a military presence in the region, and its growing influence is focused on economics and trade, but “there is the political aspect of Chinese influence, and they’re being very aggressive in exploiting but also facilitating the corruption,” John Kreul, acting deputy secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere, said at a Johns Hopkins University virtual event in November.
That corruption is meant to secure business deals and favorable investments, Kreul said, but it also targets individual political figures with the goal of following them as they rise through the government.
“Right now that’s to a large extent what they’re doing on the military side as well,” Kreul said. “You see a lot of offers for education and exchanges or sending military leaders off to China for extended professional military education.”
Those exchanges are similar to what the US offers, Kreul added, “but the feedback is often, ‘Hey, this is just straight up recruitment and propaganda 24/7 while these guys are in China.’ So that’s something that we’ve got our eye on.”
People-to-people military exchanges between China and Latin American countries have been conducted for some time, though similar exchanges with US have taken place for decades longer and in much greater numbers.
But the US government sees those interpersonal contacts as part of a larger Chinese strategy to advance its economic and political interests – in the latter case, largely to lure away Taiwan’s dwindling allies, many of whom are in Latin America.
“China’s military and security engagement strategy is focused on expanding military-to-military contacts, personnel exchanges, arms sales, and military operations other than war in support of Beijing’s broader foreign policy objectives,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in a 2018 report.
“China’s military engagement and arms sales in the region seek to build political capital and good will among [Latin American and Caribbean] states, foster institutional and personal relationships with [Latin American and Caribbean] military leaders, and gain geopolitical influence,” the report added.
Uniformed US military officials have echoed that assessment, including Navy Adm. Craig Faller, who oversees military operations in the region as head of US Southern Command.
Those arms sales remain small – Latin American countries are not major weapons buyers – but “China’s also gifting a lot of military hardware to the partners, to the extent to which it undermines partnerships with the US [and] contributes to instability,” Faller said in October 2019.
Asked at an event this month about Chinese military training and individual engagement, Faller praised US training exchanges, saying that China has “tried to copy that.”
“Clearly they’re trying to achieve a value-added training. I would not want to denigrate the current level of their training,” Faller told Insider. “The reports I get are that they’re striving to reach a level that adds value, but at the current level they’re heavily influenced with Chinese political philosophy, commentary, and very, very controlled.”
Chinese programs don’t stimulate “free intellectual, innovative thinking” that accompanies the “core professionalism” of US programs, Faller said, adding that China doesn’t vet program participants to screen out those implicated in rights abuses.
“So I would offer ours remains the gold standard,” Faller said, “but we’re watching it very, very carefully and closely in terms of numbers and volume.”
In his comments in November, Kreul said that from a “defense perspective” the US is still “in a pretty strong position in the region.”
“For almost everybody, we are the partner of choice. Our partners pretty much exclusively prefer US training, US military education, US equipment, though they certainly are not always in a position to afford buying our systems, and that is a huge opening for China and others,” Kreul added.
While those defense relationships are seen as strong, US officials and experts have warned of advances by Chinese state-owned and private firms in areas such as extractive industries, telecommunications and IT technology, and infrastructure development – in the latter case, Faller and others have cautioned that dozens of Chinese-led port projects could not only support Chinese basing but also challenge US access in the future.
“What does it look like if China has strategic control of the Strait of Magellan, the Panama Canal, or the approaches to the Gulf of Mexico through a Caribbean port? What does that look like in a global conflict?” Faller said this month.
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