Chinese Security Engagement in Latin America: Review Evan Ellis

November 19, 2020


Military engagement is an important and officially acknowledged part of the growing interactions between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Latin America and the Caribbean. The 2008 and 2016 Chinese policy white papers toward Latin America, as well as the 2015 China Defense Strategy White Paper, all define military and other security activities as an important, if not necessarily leading, component of China’s overall engagement with the region.

PRC economic activities in Latin America arguably eclipse military activities, both in terms of the resources and people involved and in terms of the attention given through official government discourse and interaction. This economic focus, along with Chinese leaders’ general avoidance of threatening rhetoric or provocative military actions in Latin America, should not distract from the fact that security sector activities are an integral part of China’s multidimensional engagement in pursuit of its strategic objectives—both in the region and globally.

The PRC’s core objective—as expressed in its own leadership statements, such as President Xi’s “China Dream” speech, and in policy documents such as “Made in China 2025”—is arguably the creation of a prosperous and secure state. In economic terms, achieving this objective involves building a strong and diverse economy, complemented by a robust commercial relationship with the rest of the world. By achieving dominant positions, Chinese companies would capture significant portions of the value added in global supply chains, own strategic assets giving China predictable access to markets and factor inputs (on terms that give decision authority to Chinese managers), and channel benefits to Chinese companies and the Chinese people. The PRC is building this strategic position by fundamentally mercantilist means, focusing on controlling or dominating sufficient parts of agricultural production, extractive industries, and other sectors in the interdependent global economy to achieve both security of supply and market access. Since the movement of goods is an integral part of the global economy and the generation of value added, a critical element of the Chinese approach is the control of transportation hubs, routes, and supporting infrastructure. China’s Belt and Road initiative was first launched in 2013 and extended to Latin America in 2018. Consistent with its historic concept of the “Silk Road” and the treasure fleet of Admiral Zheng He, it reflects the contemporary mercantilist vision of building and restructuring global infrastructure—including transportation, electricity, telecommunications, and finance—to facilitate favorable flows of commerce and transfers of wealth from the global periphery to the Chinese center. As will be discussed later, the strategic imperative of protecting this expanding China-oriented infrastructure, and the associated operations of PRC-based companies and persons in Latin America and elsewhere, complements the more traditional mission of preparing for a conflict against the United States by creating imperatives for engagement by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese state in Latin America.

Although the strategic concept for the PRC’s global advance strongly reflects its mercantilism, it coexists with other objectives. These include the isolation and eventual reincorporation of Taiwan and the push to influence institutions to prevent them from adopting positions prejudicial to the PRC—both on a global scale, such as with the United Nations and the Interamerican Development Bank, and on a regional one, such as in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the BRICS (i.e., Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, five emerging economies with significant regional influence). China’s objectives further include assistance to (or at least a lack of cooperation with the opposition to) partners such as the leftist populist regime in Venezuela, in the interest of facilitating a multipolar world that supports China’s continuing commercial advance and undercuts the position of its global rivals, such as the United States.

PLA Engagement with Latin America in Support of PRC Strategic Objectives

For the PLA, engagement in Latin America supports multiple national and institutional objectives as a subset of its global engagement. One of the PRC’s economic and strategic goals is building strong all-around relationships with countries in the region, which includes forging bonds with Latin American militaries. Arms sales and other interactions with Latin American partners, such as sharing technology and resolving product performance and support issues, help the PLA to improve the quality and functionality of its weapons and military systems in a range of global contexts. Such sales and support also build and strengthen long-term relationships with Latin American armed forces. These relationships are not simply grounded in sales; they are bolstered by ongoing maintenance, training, and other interactions involving military equipment, as well as by the opportunities those interactions create to expand PLA engagement with the partner nations into other areas, including institutional exchanges and professional military education (PME).

Reciprocally, the ability of the PLA to visit the region through military operations, institutional visits, and training and PME exchanges improves its familiarity with the operating environment and with Latin American partner institutions. This supports China’s strategic goal to operate as a global force. In addition, those exchanges, in combination with hosting Latin American military officers in the PRC for official visits or training and PME activities, create opportunities for Chinese intelligence to collect information on—and potentially to compromise—partner nation officials, providing material to support future operations in the region or in any environment where China may encounter Latin American militaries either as partners or opponents.

As the PRC expands its global commercial operations and comes increasingly into conflict—political and otherwise—with the United States, there are multiple ways in which it may use the relationships, technical benefits, and experiences gained through its engagements in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the near term, for instance, the PLA could be called upon to protect or evacuate its companies and nationals in the region, as it has previously done in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015, among others.

As its international obligations and influence on regional partners expand, the PRC could also provide port security or conduct counterpiracy and other law enforcement operations in support of its companies and nationals in the region. It could also be called upon to conduct joint operations against Chinese criminal groups operating in Latin America—as it did on a smaller scale in 2016 in Argentina, in cooperation with that nation’s police, against the Chinese triad Pi Xiu. It could also participate in future United Nations or other multinational peacekeeping operations, as it did in Haiti from 2004 through 2012.

In the context of large-scale hostilities with the United States or other major powers, PRC military relationships in the region would likely be used in all stages of the global-scope campaign necessary to wage that conflict. Military relationships could be used in conjunction with political and economic leverage to convince states in the region to support the Chinese position—or at the very least, to abstain from supporting the United States, be it through votes in international organs, economic or financial support, or permission for the United States to use partner facilities in the region as part of the war. The PLA and other Chinese security and intelligence organs might also leverage their acquired knowledge of the region to project operatives into Latin America to monitor the United States and its partner nations; they could also possibly act covertly to disrupt U.S. deployment and sustainment flows. Similarly, the PLA could use its military knowledge in conjunction with its commercial position to create diversionary crises in the region in order to undermine the U.S. political will and resources to continue the fight against China, or at least oblige the United States to divert assets from the fight in Asia to protect the U.S. homeland and key allies.

In the event of a prolonged fight in Asia, the PRC could persuade or intimidate one or more actors in Latin America to permit the PLA to use its ports, airfields, or other facilities in support of operations against the United States. Although difficult to imagine today, such permission could be less unthinkable in a future scenario in which the continuing growth, quality improvement, and operational experience of the PLA causes some Latin American and Caribbean governments to question the ability of the United States to prevail or to sustain a costly conflict. Such questions would be magnified if the United States were to suffer significant losses in the opening stages of the war, such as the sinking of multiple carriers and other capital ships. This would greatly impair the ability of the United States to quickly project power into the Asian theater, leading some to calculate that the United States might abandon the fight with the PRC short of a military victory. If some Latin American governments decided to “bet against the United States” and permit the PRC to use their facilities for military purposes, the accumulated PLA knowledge of Latin American military leaders, forces, organization, infrastructure, and operating environment would increase the speed and effectiveness with which it could establish a wartime presence to conduct operations against the United States.

Country Patterns in Security Engagement with the PRC

There is not currently a clear division in Latin America and the Caribbean between countries that engage militarily with the PRC versus those who engage with the West, unlike the clearly distinguishable dichotomy that existed between military allies of the Soviet Union and those of the West during the Cold War. The present ambiguity reflects the PRC’s avoidance of formal military alliances and of associating itself with positions hostile to the United States. Indeed, it has avoided explicitly “taking sides,” even when anti-U.S. regimes such as that of Hugo Chavez and later Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela have sought to draw China closer. The PRC has also not, to date, sought to establish permanent military bases Latin America, as some have speculated could occur as a product of construction work or port concessions going to Chinese companies in Panama, or through the port of La Union in El Salvador. Such caution in close proximity to the United States is consistent with PRC reluctance to acknowledge even the military character of its only current foreign military port facility, which is located in Djibouti, in Africa.

The lack of strong, consistent ideological alignments between the PRC and Latin American governments further complicates the idea of drawing a clear dichotomy between states who enga