As part of its push for global military power to compliment its achievement of global economic and political power, China is already demonstrating that it can pose a strategic challenge in Latin America to the security interests of the United States. Yet, will Washington rise to understanding that China’s diplomatic isolation of Taiwan in Latin America is but a wedge for Beijing to undermine the strength of democracy and US power in this region?
China’s Hemispheric Challenge is Unfolding Now
China’s strategic challenge in Latin America not a distant threat but is here and now. This challenge is likely to prove more serious than the Soviet Union’s Cold War effort to foster ideologically compatible Latin regimes as China is largely using its growing economic clout to pursue strategic military relationships and access. From 2015 to 2017 as a percentage of Latin America’s total trade, the largest destination for its exports and its imports was China. In 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged to invest $250 billion USD in Latin America. China is the major investor in a proposed “wet canal” across Nicaragua and four other “dry canal” projects that connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As Latin America is also a target for the $1 trillion to $3 trillion USD “Belt and Road” global infrastructure and investment initiative, the region could yield “debt trap” opportunities for China to gain military access.
In December 2014, Chinese sources leaked to Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po that to help pay back its then $50 billion debt to China, Venezuela had offered to sell to Beijing its 64 square kilometer Blanqilla Island. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry the next day denied such a deal was in the works, this was an early demonstration of China’s willingness to use foreign debt to gain assets that facilitate military access. Blanquilla Island is ten times the size of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) new large air and naval base on Mischief Reef in the South China Sea and about 650 km from Puerto Rico. Venezuela, Argentina and Cuba are vulnerable to future Chinese “debt trap” pressures that could lead to military access.
PLA Base in Argentina
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is alleged to have dismissed the importance of Argentina with the quip that is but “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” But Kissinger’s attempt at humor today is ironic. China is actively pursuing strategic advantage in the Arctic and Antarctica and today Argentina has a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) controlled military base. This base is a space tracking and control facility established in 2015 with a 50-year lease, in the southern Argentine province of Neuquen. In China, all such facilities are controlled by the new Strategic Support Force (SSF) of the PLA, which is now the lead PLA service for the conduct of cyber and space warfare. In the event of a war on the Taiwan Strait, the PLA/SSF base in Neuquen would control satellites involved in early cyber attacks against Taiwanese, US and Japanese targets, and would likely help track US satellites targeted for destruction.
China’s “base” in Neuquen is the remaining prize of a concerted Chinese effort from the late 2000s to 2015 to begin the rearmament of Argentina that could have led to second attempt to take the Falklands Islands from Britain. By early 2015 China and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez-Kirchner government were discussing multiple arms sales, to include up to five anti-ship missile armed corvettes, up to 100 co-produced Norinco VN-1 8×8 amphibious armored vehicles and up to 24 Chengdu Aircraft Corporation FC-1/JF-17 4th generation fighter aircraft. Should Argentina be able to threaten future war against Britain for the Falklands, it is possible that neighboring countries like Peru, Brazil and even Chile might support Buenos Aries. This would force Washington to choose between an old ally and its important Latin friends while making China a new power player in the Western Hemisphere. Luckily, in December 2015, Washington was saved by the people of Argentina who in their elections swept from power parties loyal to Fernandez-Kirchner.
China has also changed its arms sales strategies in Latin America. Since the 1990s China has developed close relations with the leftist-anti-American regimes of the region, to include Cuba, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, and then Nicolas Maduro, and Bolivia under Evo Morales. While Cuba remains dependent on Soviet-source weapons, China has had some success selling military wares to Venezuela and Bolivia. China has had less success in trying to co-opt Latin politicians to try force reluctant Latin militaries to buy their weapons, so at the April 2018, FIDAE airshow in Chile, Chinese officials told this analyst they would instead work with the militaries instead of seeking “government-to-government” deals. Nevertheless, China markets very sophisticated weapons in the region, to include multiple types of accurate short-range ballistic missiles and 4th generation combat aircraft. In December 2016, a Venezuelan Army delegation was shown a new 30-kilowatt laser weapon and an advanced unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).
Part of China’s Quest for Global Power
A Chinese push for strategic influence in Latin America follows from its striving for global strategic influence. This now includes China’s leadership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, who’s eight members encompass 40 percent of the world’s population and who’s main accomplishment are its anti-democracy tilt, exclusion of the United States and its regular largescale multilateral military exercises. After years of building its economic and political influence in Djibouti, China’s opened its first formal military base there in July 2017. China’s economic and political influence in Africa, followed by increasing arms sales, has led to new phase: from June 26 to July 10 China will host the first China-Africa defense forum to “deepen the China-Africa comprehensive strategic partnership … and meet the needs of Africa’s new security situations and China-Africa defense cooperation.” It is likely that Beijing hopes eventually to create a similar “defense forum” for Latin America.
Looking toward the late 2020s and into the 2030s, the PLA will have more global power projection assets that will give Chinese leaders options to intervene in Latin conflict, such as a possible future war over the Falklands. By the early 2030s the PLA Navy could have its first all nuclear-powered aircraft carrier battle groups, with nuclear-powered carriers, cruisers, submarines and underway supply ships. The PLA Air Force could have hundreds of its 60-ton cargo capacity Xian Aircraft Corporation Y-20 large transport aircraft, plus its aerial refueling version, to fulfill airmobile power projection missions. The PLA will also have greater capability to contest control of Low Earth Orbit and may even have military assets on the Moon, to help win wars on the Earth. China and Russia could also develop a much more active military entente bordering on an alliance, to include strategic nuclear, space warfare and conventional military cooperation.
Countering China’s Global Push, With Taiwan’s Help
China’s push for global power projection and its expected continued search for strategic military access in Latin America means that the United States will have to revisit many of the lessons of Cold War. Two key lessons are the requirement to maintain military-technical superiority over the challenger and the requirement to lead and arm a global network of military alliances. Both Washington and its allies and partners will face a stark reality of having to significantly increasing their defense expenditures and cooperation.
But at the core of any US and allied effort to deter a global Chinese and Russian-assisted projection of strategic power and influence will be a commitment to shared values, the defense of political and economic freedom. In this pursuit Taiwan can be a valuable partner. China uses its political isolation of Taiwan as leverage to force democratic countries around the world to follow China’s dictat, forcing them to undermine their own values, denying diplomatic recognition and military sales to a fellow democracy. Having stared to compromise their values over Taiwan, it is easier for Beijing to force future compromises on the democracies, which aid China’s pursuit of power.
However, in Latin America and elsewhere Washington can exercise the leadership necessary to deny China the use of Taiwan as wedge to project political power. While Washington’s credibility has a chink, as it too does not formally recognize Taiwan, it has set a global example by creating laws like the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, recently strengthened by the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act. These laws have enabled the pursuit of political, economic and military relations with Taiwan short of formal recognition and can serve as a template for other states to fashion a relationship with Taiwan that allows potential benefits from a fuller range of relations.
The essential point for Washington to convey to friends in Latin America and elsewhere is that diplomatic recognition of China does not mean they have to “derecognize” their interest in promoting the survival of a free and democratic Taiwan, which is in many ways is a more responsible economic and political partner than China. Early April discussions by this analyst in Chile indicate that Latin leaders were impressed by the US Congress’s passage of the Taiwan Travel Act. If Washington continues to improve its all-around relations with Taiwan, that could inspire other countries to follow suit. When democratic countries understand that a relationship with China does not have to include Beijing dictating their relationship with Taipei, they strengthen their own freedoms from China’s predations.
The main point: China’s diplomatic isolation of Taiwan in Latin America is a wedge for Beijing to undermine the strength of democracy and US power in this region.