Bush Goes to Beijing, China Goes to Latin America

  • As he leaves for Beijing, President Bush can’t ignore the growing Chinese presence in Washington’s “backyard.” The question is, what does he do with such information?
  • China’s penetration of Latin American markets may be more than just that; it could be a historic entrance that encompasses not just economic fields, but social, political and military relationships as well.
  • Chinese interest in Latin America is propelled by strategic needs for resources to fuel its country’s exponential growth.
  • The relationship between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its Latin American counterparts has paralleled growing bilateral economic and political ties with a number of regional governments.
  • The current military relationship is perhaps less of a potential threat to Washington than it is to Latin America, as it seems to echo past neocolonial strategies involving an asymmetrical relationship between a superpower and a series of developing nations with relatively weak economies and chaotic political structures.
  • President Bush’s upcoming trip to China underscores Washington’s vital interest in comprehending that emerging eastern power, particularly the growth in the numbers and equipment of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In the past 15 years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has slowly assumed an increasingly prominent role in world affairs and now has begun to effectively extend its reach into most corners of the Western Hemisphere. This expansion has undoubtedly attracted the anxious eyes of some U.S. policymakers who may perhaps worry that the traditional “backyard” is being romanced away by Beijing, notwithstanding the reality that Washington seems to have incorporated much of Asia into its sphere of influence.

    Indeed the PRC has powerful motivations for such courtships: as China has industrialized its strategic ties to Latin America have grown. Demonstrably, the region has assumed an increasing importance as a source for vital agricultural and mineral resources. Beijing aggressively seeks growth and expansion, and despite the altruistic and fraternal tones taken in its trade agreements, it is far from an eleemosynary gesture. Since it is possible that China’s neocolonial investment strategy could result in crises similar to those which traditionally have involved comparable U.S. interests in the past, it is possible that China could also emulate Washington’s provocative practices to protect its newfound engagements.

    As Beijing moves through the early stages of establishing close working arrangements with Latin American militaries, China is perhaps readying itself to ensure that its economic and strategic interests are being safeguarded in the event that regional developments threaten the significant funds it is now beginning to invest in such countries as Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. In examining these ties, it helps to recall earlier U.S. strategies that led to various categories of intervention in such countries as Cuba, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, where an important military factor eventually came into play. This is not to say that China will necessarily exactly emulate past U.S. behavior, but that it may unwittingly find itself heading down that road.

    China’s Grand Ambitions
    Before assessing Latin America’s relationship with China, it is crucial to first examine the framework of Beijing’s operating style in order to understand how the region fits into those plans. China’s growth into a global power was propelled by conscious and aggressive government policies that sought to diffuse the country’s influence around the world. According to the 2004 Congressional Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s aspirations and efforts to achieve great power status have accelerated in recent years,” and PRC party officials have declared the following goals: “double the 2000 gross national product by 2010 [and] further develop the structure of the national economy by 2020…” In order to achieve these desiderata, the report noted, China has adapted a foreign policy strategy “for the developing world [that] seeks to expand the scope and depth of its relationships, primarily as a means to secure access to natural resources and markets.” In this sense, Chinese ventures in the Western Hemisphere are to be paralleled by the continual expansion of PRC interests in Central Asia and Africa, among other regions, and are being driven by a clear national vision of economic growth. Thus, to guarantee future economic expansion, Beijing must establish secure sources for important raw materials to fuel its now spiking industrial development.

    Economic growth, however, is simply one component of Beijing’s larger strategy to increase the country’s “comprehensive national power” (CNP), a concept that calibrates national strength as the combination of numerous measures. The idea was loosely described by analyst Michael Pillsbury in 2000, as considering “a variety of factors, such as territory, natural resources, military force, economic power, social conditions, domestic government, foreign policy, and international influence. CNP is the aggregate of all these factors.” To that end, the (U.S.) 2004 Report to Congress on PRC Military Power noted that, “Ensuring domestic stability and a secure international environment is crucial to Beijing’s national development strategy.”

    The PRC also views the Taiwan issue as highly important to its CNP, and in its quest to delegitimize the island’s self-proclaimed independent government, Latin America holds particular importance. Of the 26 countries that still recognize Taiwan as a free-standing nation, half are found in Latin America or the Caribbean. The PRC’s aggressive aid and investment packages have successfully influenced some countries to switch their allegiances. The Congressional Research Report on China’s involvement in Latin America noted that “…in 2004, Dominica severed relations with Taiwan after Beijing trumped Taiwan’s $9 million in assistance with a pledge of $122 million in assistance to the tiny country over six years.”

    Latin America’s Strategic Importance to China
    As China’s economy has boomed, racking up continuous growth rates of 9%, and its population has become increasingly urbanized, the country’s need for raw materials has skyrocketed. The need was exacerbated by the decision to become a fully motorized consumer economy, meaning that in short order China would require in the order of twice of its present level of consumption of petroleum. It is relevant to note that today China is the third largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world. Therefore, it is not surprising that according to the Washington Post, Beijing has estimated that by 2020 the country would need 600 million tons of crude oil annually. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that in a report in February’s issue of Poder magazine, “China has displaced the United States as the world’s largest consumer of most industrial raw materials, including copper, aluminum, nickel, platinum, and iron ore.”

    An Embarrassment of Riches
    Latin America offers in abundance many of those key resources now coveted by China, and its history and experience of serving as a raw-goods-exporting economic enclave for the industrialized metropolis – be it Spain, the U.K. or the U.S., has been at different stages of its history – further enhances the region’s appeal to Beijing. In its eagerness to secure access to the Latin American resources it so prizes, the PRC has skillfully wielded its economic “soft power” to convince regional governments to amicably open up their countries to Chinese penetrations. Not that much persuasion was necessary, considering the desire of countries like Brazil to find an outside foreign partner capable of counterbalancing the U.S.

    China has thus been able to invest heavily in the region in a remarkably short period of time. According to a Congressional Research Report by Kerry Dumbaugh and Mark P. Sullivan, Chinese private sector direct investment in the region is significant: at $1.04 billion it constitutes more than a third of China’s overall direct investment worldwide. Furthermore, the PRC has approximately $1 billion in investments in Venezuelan oil production, and has promised much more to other countries in the region. In 2004, China pledged $275 million for improvements to Argentina’s infrastructure, and, according to Poder magazine, it also offered Brazil “$8 billion for railways, $6 billion for low cost housing, $5 billion for hydrocarbons, $450 billion for communications, and $260 billion for satellites.” While few of those promises have yet to begun to be met, their nature is not widely different from, say, infrastructural programs carried out in early 20th century Cuba by the post-independence American occupying administration, or by the Kennedy-era Alliance for Progress. Such projects were designed to primarily further U.S. economic aims by improving the investment environment in a given regional country, while simultaneously cultivating the appearance of being a good neighbor.

    While its investments have been noticeably generous, China’s eagerness to pump money into some regional projects does not necessarily represent an unmitigated good. It is, perhaps, simply more of the same for Latin America. While positive changes may result from the new and brimming Sino-Latin American economic engagement, such investments do not necessarily adequately address or change underlying problems of social injustice, unequal income distribution, crippling unemployment or macroeconomic dependency, and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they are entirely kosher.

    Rhetoric aside, Chinese planners assuredly do not concern themselves with such matters. As Beijing almost myopically pursues its economic and political goals, it runs the risk of inadvertently irritating the countries which it already tries to utilize for such ends. Already, questions are being raised locally about both the social displacement and environmental destruction being caused by commercial soy bean cultivation in Paraguay and Brazil – production fueled by China’s relentless demand for the product. Elsewhere, Peruvian workers at the Chinese-owned Shougang Hierro mine launched a two day strike this summer over poor working conditions and low wages. Such examples underscore the concerns that can be raised about the consequential influence of Chinese investment on the decision-making process in each country in which it is present. If China continues to stress commodity extraction at nearly any cost, in terms of environmental considerations or the sentiments of the local population – it could engender new internal conflicts which may echo those faced by other metropole powers in the recent past.

    Strategic Defense Through Beijing’s Eyes
    Beijing places tremendous strategic value on economic resources. The exigency of maintaining access to petroleum and other industrial materials that are essential to its continued growth has led the PRC to seriously commit itself to ensuring that the pipelines – physical and metaphorical – remain open. Indeed, Beijing’s interests have now started to actually converge with Washington’s in one key area: political stability and the protection of investment. In spite of the fraternal tone taken in Beijing’s communiqués, one must assume that its root interest is economic, and interpret Chinese military diplomacy in the region through this lens.

    For Washington, that is hardly new. Defense of economic interests has always been a potent motivating factor in its Latin American policy and frequently has spurred military activism – as evidenced by regime changes or decisions to prop up endangered governments in Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama, among a number of others in recent years. China could conceivably find itself involved in the same scenario as a possible result of its resource-driven economic strategy.

    The 2004 Defense White Paper published by the Chinese government in conjunction with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), notes that “China’s basic goals and tasks in maintaining national security are… [among others] to safeguard the interests of national development, promote economic and social development…and [to] steadily increase the overall national strength.” But according to the 2004 congressional report, the non-bellicose language of the Chinese White Paper “should not cloak the ambitious nature of China’s national development program.” The U.S. report went on to note that Beijing broadly perceives threats to its national security, and hostile acts against the country’s foreign investment or economic interests abroad would certainly qualify as such. Towards this end, Chinese economic linkages with Latin America have been paralleled by a certain growth in the military relationship between the two geographical areas.

    Hand in Hand
    The meteoric deterioration of the quality of U.S. regional engagement during the Otto Reich-Roger Noriega era of ideological supremacy, helped open the door for opportunistic PRC probes throughout the hemisphere. As it advanced its economic aims in Latin America, it also has carefully established active, if low intensity, military relations with the region’s armed forces. Such actions are in line with Beijing’s foreign military policy elsewhere in the world, where the country is pursuing primarily economic interests. The 2004 Congressional Report observed that “in support of these goals, [expanding political influence and economic access] China’s global military engagement plays an important…role gaining access and influence with host country governments.” Such military connections also have been accelerated by counter-productive U.S. foreign policy initiatives, specifically, the American Service-members Protection Act, which has effectively served to sever ties between the U.S. and many Latin American armed forces.

    The growth in ties between regional militaries and the PLA is not unique to Latin America however. Military diplomacy, as such initiatives are described, comprises a significant part of the PLA’s operations each year, and, while technically autonomous, does seem to correlate with Beijing’s larger economic and political strategies throughout the globe. China’s 2004 Defense White Paper observed that the PLA carries out military cooperation “in line with the national foreign policy.” Such initiatives include high level visits with counterparts, joint exercises, training, technological exchanges, and a variety of academic exchanges. This template certainly seems to be playing out with vigor in the Western Hemisphere.

    Although China has had only one established direct instance of military linkage with the region as a result of sending 125 riot police to participate in the U.N.’s Haiti peacekeeping force, such an action seems to be indicative of a larger strategy in the future. A 2005 report by R. Evan Ellis of the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) commented that the involvement could “…be interpreted as part of a more long-term strategy through which China is pursuing a greater diplomatic presence in the region, and an expanded voice in its politics.” This analysis rings true: however negative the popular perception of the U.S.-sponsored manipulation of Haitian developments has been in Latin America, it is impossible to view the PLA’s presence there as anything other than a well-considered step towards establishing the precedent for future military engagements in a region that Beijing increasingly sees as strategically important.

    A Multifaceted Relationship
    While certain aspects of the Chinese-Latin American military relationship remain unconsummated (there have been no major sales of equipment, and there is only a scattered presence of Chinese troops on the ground), China assiduously has promoted military ties in the key areas of cooperation and exchange. Through still relatively small-scale military exchange programs carried out between regional armed forces’ establishments and individually-tasked PLA officers, a modest bond has started to develop.

    Strengthened by cooperation agreements such as those signed between China, Brazil and Venezuela, bilateral military ties are increasing, although they remain minimal. The relationship’s growth has been facilitated by generic cooperation agreements that are typically linked with increased economic ties and are well received by Latin American leaders as one of the many benefits stemming from China’s now swelling engagement in the region. On a 2004 visit to China, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva sought an “across the board” consolidation of strategic relations including trade, scientific, cultural and military ties, according to the China Daily newspaper.

    Such interest has been reciprocated by the Chinese military, which itself has also placed increased emphasis on ties with Latin America. Between 2003 and 2004, according to the PLA website, there were 15 visits to Latin American countries by PLA officials that were described as “major military exchanges.” This was a fairly notable increase over the nine visits paid to the region from 2001-2002. The pace of integration has not slowed since 2004, as Chinese President Hu Jintao’s December tour tightened Beijing’s relationship with the region. So far this year, a military delegation has visited Chile and Colombia in September, the director of the PLA’s General Political Department has traveled to Venezuela and Argentina, and “goodwill visits” were made to Cuba and Mexico. For example, in assessing the significance of China’s military diplomacy with Argentina, the PLA’s deputy chief of staff Zhang Li noted at an August 29 press conference in Beijing that, “the ties between the two militaries are an important part of the bilateral relations of the two countries…”

    An Elaborate Courtship
    In the case of Brazil, Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong said in 2003 that “China and Brazil, as two friendly countries, carried out extensive cooperation in such fields as politics, trade, culture and military.” He went on to add that “The friendly cooperation between the two countries benefited not only the two peoples but also the regional and world peace and development.” A PLA release quotes its chief of general staff as observing that “…with the development of the Sino-Brazilian relations, the contacts between the two armed forces were increasing, the military forces had carried out friendly exchanges and cooperation in multi-field [sic] and multi-level [sic]. For many years, the high-level visits between the two armed forces were steadily more frequent, which promoted the development of the relations between the two armed forces and maintained a positive approach toward promoting the bilateral friendly and cooperative ties.” According to a Henry L. Stimson Center report, since the mid 1990s the Chinese National Defense University has hosted a number of Brazilian students for two to three month terms, a program that has likely grown since then, as the two countries move towards tighter integration in various non-military fields.

    “Cooperative ties” have taken many forms, but the sentiment behind them is the same. Chile has also established a close relationship which, according to Ellis’ report, includes “attendance by Chilean officers at the National Defense University of China,” and “Chinese representation at the Chilean War College.” This spring, select officers at the Chilean War College began studying Mandarin Chinese under the tutelage of Captains Sun Xintang and Zao Xitao. According to the Chilean Army’s website, the chief objective of the course is not just “to provide linguistic knowledge,” but to educate the officers on “cultural aspects of China; fundamental speaking and writing skills; grammar and comprehension necessary to achieve fluid communication.”

    Venezuela and China also have tightened their military bonds in recent years. In August of 2005, Caracas purchased three military grade radar systems from Beijing. The radars, and the included command center, were designed to significantly enhance Venezuela’s ability to manage its airspace. These overtures have their roots in the major exchanges that have occurred between the two countries (seven from 2000 to 2005), as well as a recent sale of uniforms to the Venezuelan military. A 2002 agreement establishing a system of academic cooperation between the two countries’ defense academies, indicates a further level of bilateral engagement. As relations between Venezuela and the U.S. have soured, China seems to have taken advantage, and Beijing could be close to establishing a potential master source to satisfy its oil thirst.

    Peru and China also maintain active military exchanges, which according to the Peruvian Defense Ministry, are targeted primarily at scientific and technological cooperation. A 1998 agreement sent $1 million in military assistance from China to Peru, and similar accords have since followed. In December of 2002, China signed a military aid agreement with Peru that resulted in the transfer to Lima of $740,000 worth of military supplies, namely buses and ambulances. A December 2004 deal formalized that relationship and extended it through 2009, assuring that Peru will annually receive 6 million Yuan (approximately $740,000) worth of military equipment from across the Pacific.

    A New School?
    According to remarks made by U.S. Southern Command chief General Bantz J. Craddock at a March conference in Florida, there are growing contacts between Chinese and Latin American militaries, and that units from the region are increasingly training and spending time in the PRC. At a Senate subcommittee meeting, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Charles Shapiro commented that the State Department was “watching closely increased [military] educational exchanges between China and several Latin American and Caribbean countries…” A State Department source suggested that while military contacts between the regions were currently “modest,” there were nevertheless “a number of [military] students going to school in China.” According to the source, China seemed most interested in countries with which it has closer economic ties and trade relationships, and that the greatest number of exchanges seemed to be with countries that were more “strategically advanced,” namely Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

    An Uncertain Future
    It seems clear that the PRC and the PLA have undertaken military diplomacy as part of a coherent effort to gain greater engagement with Latin America. This new military engagement on the part of Beijing clearly does not pose an overt threat to U.S. security. Such sorties largely have been limited to exchanges, and have not contained major arms deal components, and do not suggest a systematic Chinese attempt to penetrate the hemisphere. Nor can they be seen as an attempt to undermine regional stability or directly confront the U.S., despite Representative Katherine Harris (R-FL) jejune remark that Chinese engagement “constitutes a threat to the relatively young democracies throughout the region, which in turn jeopardizes our vital strategic partnerships throughout the hemisphere.”

    According to the Turkish Weekly News, at the recent Senate hearings, Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Pardo-Maurer recognized this, noting that there is nothing to suggest that “Chinese military activities in the Western Hemisphere, including arms sales, pose a direct conventional threat to the United States or its allies.” Furthermore, China and the U.S. clearly have different security relationships with Latin America – differences defined by geographic and social realities: drugs and immigration questions obviously do not affect China with the magnitude that they do the U.S., and the nature and the modest scale of the PLA’s involvement reflects that.

    Chinese Protection of Investment: A Threat to Whom?
    R. Evan Ellis notes that “China’s interest in securing access to the resources …through trade and investment give it a vested interest in the stability of the region,” but stability has often been a fleeting quality in Latin America, and the growing Chinese economic interests could, paradoxically, lead to internal conflict. Because China seems to be, perhaps unwittingly, following a neocolonial path similar to (but not a pure mimic of) that taken by the U.S., it will likely begin to face similar challenges. Ellis rightly concludes that Beijing will undoubtedly be forced to eventually confront any threats to its growing investment, whether from an unfriendly government or a subnational movement. While China traditionally has backed some insurgencies with which it shared ideological affinities, this era may have passed. To a Paraguayan farmer displaced by the expansion of a Chinese soy farm, or to the Peruvian miners unhappy over their living conditions, it little matters the color of the flag at corporate headquarters. Beijing may ultimately be forced to confront regional backlashes to its investment, just as those with which other colonizers were eventually forced to respond.

    To this end, Chinese military involvement in the region can be interpreted not as the threat to U.S. security that some right-wing analysts are noisily perceiving, but should be simply understood as merely another component of Beijing’s economic program – albeit one that perhaps raises the specter of neocolonial intervention and an improbable potential subversion of Latin American sovereignty. All this may amount to nothing more than hypothetical questions regarding purported misgivings over some possible strong-arming of local elites by China. More likely – however remote the odds – it would be more logical to assume that in any clash of interest, Beijing will align with the government rather than dissident groups.

    Nevertheless, the implications of such postulations are strong. China could eventually need to protect its investment, and in doing so, may be forced to resort to its regional military contacts, a concern which is amplified by the way in which China has paralleled its economic engagement with military diplomacy. The 2004 Congressional Report suggested that “from Beijing’s perspective, strategic ambiguity [regarding its policies and motives] – including strategic denial and deception – is a mechanism to influence the policies of foreign governments and the opinions of the general public and elites in other countries.” R. Evan Ellis has hinted that, in spite of its proclaimed non-intervention doctrine, the PRC would have no moral qualms about actively manipulating politics and opinion in a given Latin American country such as Colombia, Peru or Chile as a means of guaranteeing that their economic concerns are protected. In this schema of neocolonial strategy, military ties could prove to be a valuable, if an adjunct tool.

    Marching in Step with History?
    U.S. links to Latin American militaries have long been condemned by groups that rightly feel that such relationships could pose a threat to authentic sovereignty. Military diplomacy does indeed promote “understanding,” but it may go beyond simply broadening the worldview of each nation’s uniformed services. Exchanges among the regional armed forces promote an understanding of the investing nation’s economic and political motivations, as well as, more perniciously, perhaps engendering a capability to play to those interests for personal or professional gain. History has demonstrated that the potential for compromising sovereignty exists through both indirect and direct channels. First, if officers are exposed to overly politicized indoctrination (i.e. the School of the Americas) they may be more inclined to act on their own or some extra-regional initiative if they perceive an opportunity to profit by courting favor with an influential investing nation. Secondly, closer military links facilitate the support and acceptance by military coup governments and may encourage a metropolis to push for armed action if its interests are threatened. In the event that future developments force the PRC to defend China’s economic interests, it may have recourse in the military, making the relationship (currently meticulously being established) between the PLA and regional militaries an invaluable strategic asset.

    As China’s investment in Latin America continues to grow, it will necessarily emphasize regional stability and the protection of its investments. In doing so, it may find itself in the position, unlikely enough, of having to flex its muscles to achieve an economic end. The vehicle for such influence may well have a military aspect to it, and sadly such a tactic could rely upon a great deal of precedence in Latin America.