DN - Defence Notes

Opinion: China, Latin America and the Monroe Doctrine

17th April 2019 - 03:22 GMT | by The Geobukseon in Indo-Pacific


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The Congressional Research Service released a report titled ‘China’s Engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean’ on 11 April, and it raised serious concerns over what China and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have done and are doing in Latin America.

Over the past year, Americans across the Western Hemisphere and other global citizens have been exposed to near constant press reports of violence in Nicaragua, Venezuela and other parts of Latin America. Most of this violence has a direct or indirect relationship to the presence of Russians in Latin America and/or financing from their government.

But what role, if any, does China have in the current state of military, economic and diplomatic affairs in that hemisphere?

Former US president James Monroe established the Monroe Doctrine on 2 December 1823 when the Latin American colonies of Spain and Portugal were gaining independence and becoming ‘emerging markets’. The doctrine was designed to end European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere and to protect a wide range of US interests and its southern neighbours.

The doctrine was also used several times to justify American military action over the past nearly 200 years.

In November 2013, former secretary of state John Kerry told the Organization of American States that the era of the Monroe Doctrine was over. However, President Donald Trump’s comments in August 2017 implied that the US might use the doctrine in support of military intervention to alleviate suffering and end the violence of the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Since that time, the situation on the ground in Venezuela continues to deteriorate. The Maduro government is heavily financed by Russian and Chinese loans, and backed by the presence of Russian soldiers, military advisors and private military contractors or mercenaries. 

Press reports indicate the Russians are there to service and repair Russian-made S-300 air defence systems – claimed to be recently damaged by electricity blackouts, while others are there for security support during this unstable period.

The Venezuelan government blocked truckloads of US aid from entering the country at the Cucuta border crossing with Colombia, claiming that there is no humanitarian crisis in the country. This proved to be a public relations disaster for the nation and encouraged the US and other Organization of American States to press the regime for change.

This closing of the border led to the arrival of the Russian advisors in mid-March and that was followed by 65 tonnes of medicine and other supplies airlifted in by the Chinese in late March. The Russians and Chinese are both trying to salvage a failed state in which they have strong military relationships. Furthermore, Venezuela is heavily indebted and owes over $100 billion to a range of creditors – including as much as half of that to Russia and China.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for foreign activity in Latin America, and it has not escaped the notice of senior Trump administration officials. Last November, US National Security Advisor John Bolton used the term ‘Troika of Tyranny’ to describe oppressive Latin dictatorships in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.

In addition, the Chinese have been active in several Latin countries on the diplomatic, economic and military fronts.

Chinese state-owned enterprises have been selling and installing a wide range of surveillance systems and related information technology across Latin America since 2007:

- Chinese surveillance cameras to combat crime in Mexico City in 2007;

- A command centre, surveillance and communications systems in Ecuador;

- Hundreds of surveillance cameras donated to Bolivia;

- Panama allowed the installation of Huawei-manufactured cameras in Colon;

- The relocation of Hikvision’s distribution centre of video surveillance from Miami to Panama’s Colon Free Trade Zone;

- China’s ZTE installed an emergency response system in Argentina with over 1,200 surveillance cameras;

- ZTE assisted the Maduro regime with its ‘fatherland identification card’ that will allow the nation to track, reward and/or punish citizens.

The Chinese also constructed a satellite tracking and communications station in the Patagonia region of Argentina to support its space programme, and possibly a range of military communications systems. It is managed by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, which reports to the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.

The heavily guarded Argentinian facility has caused some concern amongst locals, and access to it is limited. This site may allow China to expand the militarisation of space from Argentina, which appears to be a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

On 7 February, Adm Craig Faller, the new head of the Miami-based US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), warned the US Congress on the accelerated expansion of Chinese interests in Latin America. Many defence officials, academics and leading think tank analysts are concerned about the Chinese facility in Patagonia and the expansion of Chinese/PLA interests in the Western Hemisphere.

The aforementioned report issued earlier this month added that the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy indicates that ‘China seeks to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans’, and it expresses concerns about China’s support of the Maduro regime.

The report noted SOUTHCOM’s concern that China is expanding its influence in Latin America, in many cases at the expense of US interests. It also notes serious concerns over investment in Panama Canal infrastructure and the future ability of this key transit route to remain open to military traffic and global trade.

The report mentions concerns over the shift in Chinese arms sales to Latin America – from small arms to technologically sophisticated assets such as advanced radar systems, armoured personnel carriers, combat aircraft, naval vessels and multiple rocket launch systems. The bulk of these sales have been to Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

All these nations are rich in natural resources that China needs for continued economic growth – oil and natural gas, iron ore, lithium, copper and other base metals.

Lithium is of special concern as Chinese-based Tianqi Lithium recently completed a deal to acquire 24% of Chilean firm SQM. Tianqi now controls nearly half the world’s production of lithium, a key element used in batteries for a range of commercial and defence products. This investment will allow China access to the world’s largest lithium resource – roughly 47% of global reserves.

Another Chinese lithium deal was announced on 1 April, with Gangfeng Lithium Co announcing a $160 million investment with Lithium Americas in an Argentine mining project. This is another example of Chinese efforts to source supplies of a critical defence natural resource.

The expansion of Chinese and Russian military activities in Latin America presents the US and its allies with a unique opportunity to exploit. It is occurring in a region that has deep cultural, economic, religious and historical ties with America and many European nations. The US can use decades of goodwill generated through military-to-military exchanges, training exercises, education experiences, economic trade and tourism to its advantage to confront Chinese and Russian heavy-handedness.

One needs only look at the destruction of goodwill in Africa from widespread Chinese investment and infrastructure projects of the Belt and Road Initiative. These projects provide an opening for the US to exploit through soft power, humanitarian assistance, additional military training initiatives and arms sales.

In summary, the US, its allies and neighbours now face an array of foreign military personnel, advanced weapons systems and AI-related intelligence collection platforms along with dual-purpose economic and corporate investment activity in Latin America.

This appears to be a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine – something the Trump administration has publicly commented on and one can only assume is used in its diplomatic missions and military contingency planning.

Furthermore, it represents yet another part of the world for Western governments, their diplomats and military officials, along with related corporate entities in the defence industry, to be concerned about. Yet it presents an opportunity to confront near-peer competitors through competition in diplomacy, weapons systems, humanitarian assistance and traditional Western values.

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