China’s involvement in South America has increased rapidly in the past decade, with the PRC playing a substantial role in shaping South America’s socioeconomic development. But Beijing’s South American policy focuses overwhelmingly on pursuing economic goals while deliberately limiting its military involvement in South America to avoid alarming the United States, which remains China’s most important partner in the Americas.
At present, China’s regional security activities comprise mainly limited exchanges, arms sales, and modest participation in regional humanitarian missions. However, China’s involvement in these areas is also growing, both to serve economic objectives and to lay the foundation for possible increased ties in the future.
China’s most substantial involvement in the security realm is military-military exchanges with South American countries, though these occur less frequently than the PRC has with Asian, Western, and African countries. This activity comprises both visits by high-ranking officers and officials as well educational exchanges through military educational programs. Although the most frequent participants in these programs come from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, PRC military schools and institutions have hosted personnel from many other South American countries.
Visits from defense leaders and high-ranking generals are common and have occurred between China and many countries in the region. These visits are important for developing relationships and enable the Chinese military to gain intelligence concerning South American militaries and the regional security environment.
The high-level visits also allow arms sales to be discussed, an important element of China’s security ties with some South American countries such as those that have adhere to an anti-American, populist line or whose cash-strapped militaries cannot afford the more advanced weapons sold by Russia, Europe, and the United States. Given the recent paucity of inter-state wars in South America, these latter countries can logically accept less sophisticated Chinese weapons that are still useful for internal security purposes as well as for countering narcotics trafficking and other transnational threats. Major Chinese sales to South American in recent years include aircraft, radars, and small arms and light weapons. Important customers have included Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela.
Nonetheless, certain barriers have limited Chinese arms sales to South America. These impediments have resulted in only 6% of China’s total arms sales going to South America during the 2007-2011 period.
Some militaries still consider PRC-made weapons as inferior to Russian or Western-made ones. They are willing to pay a price premium for the perceived higher quality or for prestige and status considerations. In addition, many South American countries are reluctant to switch to new arms suppliers, which would present compatibility challenges as well as the need for retraining and new maintenance and logistics procedures.
One additional negative factor associated with Chinese arms is that they often end up in the hands of regional paramilitary groups such as Columbia’s FARC guerrillas and with Mexican drug cartels. Although China does not sell them the arms directly, its reputation suffers when third-party dealers transfer PRC-made small arms and light weapons without Beijing’s approval.
China’s physical military presence in the region is very small, probably because no action would alarm the United States more than PLA combat personnel in Latin America. China’s direct participation in military operations has been restricted to the area of humanitarian assistance.
The largest mission thus far has been in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which Beijing has supported since the UN Security Council first authorized the mission in 2004. Even here, China’s contribution has been in the form of 100 or more riot police rather than military personnel.
In 2010 China conducted its first bilateral military exercises in the region during the Peace Angel mission in Peru, which was a humanitarian exercise simulating the provision of medical services in a disaster scenario.
China also sent its “Peace Ark” hospital ship to the Caribbean. The ship traveled to Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Costa Rica, where it provided medical services. The deployment also raises China’s “soft power” by increasing goodwill toward Beijing in the region.
More generally, these humanitarian deployments underscore Beijing’s positive contributions to global security. They can also benefit the PLA at home since the humanitarian missions proudly display its growing global role, which could help win some budget battles in Beijing as well as raise the PLA’s prestige in Chinese society
China’s small military presence in South America seems intended primarily to support the main non-defense foreign-policy goals of the Chinese government, namely facilitating China’s economic growth while eschewing unnecessary confrontations with the United States and other countries.
The limited number of military exchanges, arms sales, and humanitarian missions generate good will between China and South American countries, helping to foster economic cooperation without provoking a seriously negative response in Washington.
Even this limited range of activities in South America yields useful on-site intelligence regarding the regional security environment and provides a foundation that could prove strategically useful if China chose to raise its regional defense profile in the future.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.