China is using its security engagement initiatives to build relationships and grow its influence among Latin American governments and militaries, according to Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
As part of a â€˜multi-dimensional' strategy of engagement in Latin America, the Chinese government, China has actively sought out a variety of military and security activities in the region.
In a 2016 Chinese policy paper on Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, the Chinese government vowed to "actively carry out military exchanges and cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean countries" and "increase friendly exchanges between defense and military leaders from the two sides."
"The Chinese understand very, very well the power of people-to-people diplomacy in multiple domains," Ellis said in an interview with LPO. "You've got thousands of students that are brought on scholarships to learn about China, and who then become Latin America's future leaders representing their government."
These initiatives have not gone unnoticed by US defense officials. At a recent congressional hearing, for example, US Southern Command's Admiral Craig Faller warned that China is tightening its relationships with Latin American military officers by bringing them to Chinese military academies and on training programs, particularly in the cyber sector.
Ellis noted that the strategy allows China to "get a better understanding of global partner institutions" and also improve its own military capabilities. As an example, he noted that Chinese soldiers have taken courses at Brazil's jungle warfare training school in Manaus, while Brazilian officers have gone on visits to China.
"They want to learn and replicate capabilities that could be of use for themselves," he said. "But beyond that, [in Latin America] the military often plays a role in national politics."
Although Ellis said that the overall number of Latin American officers participating in Chinese training programs is still "relatively" limited, the programs are widely varied. Some are short courses of three to five weeks at the People's Liberation Army National Defense University, while others might be longer programs at staff colleges or even five-year programs that are taught in Mandarin.
Once in China, Ellis said, Latin American officers are evaluated by China's Ministry of State Security (MSS).
"They find out a little bit about what they're all about, what their likes are and what their weaknesses are," he said. "It's not necessarily that they've been compromised in the espionage sense, but they have pretty good insight. These people could play an important role."
"In the long-term, it's about political relationships. It's about the military. It's about espionage," he said. "But it's also about access."
Additionally, Ellis said that China's strategy is also partly aimed at building relationships and gaining access to facilities that could be useful in future scenarios.
"Imagine a global conflict in 2030, where after the loss of three carriers et cetera, et cetera, you have a Latin American partner institution that, despite a lack of any formal basing agreement, says okay, and that they'll give you access to ports and bases," he added.
China has also lent training support and sold weapons and other military supplies to a number of governments in South America, particularly those with a difficult relationship with the US such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
In Argentina, the governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez also were involved in weapons purchases from the Chinese, include a $2.6 million contract to buy Chinese armored vehicles in 2008. Fernandez was negotiating with the Chinese to buy 20 FC-1 fight aircraft in 2015, but left office before the sale coild took.
In 2013, notably, Argentina hosted two Chinese naval vessels in port after the ships crossed though the Straits of Magellan.
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