Gauging China's Military Intentions In Latin America

China is setting up a naval base in Djibouti. Could it do the same in Latin America? Depends on the scope and scale of its growing economic interests in the region.


MEXICO CITY — Four years ago, China signed an agreement to establish a naval base in Djibouti, a former French colony in the Horn of Africa with access to the Indian Ocean. Officially it is a logistical support base for the Chinese navy, but it's prompting concerns over China's hegemonic ambitions among Western allies, including France, Japan and the United States, that have regional interests and a military presence there.

The base is to meet the long-term needs of China's increasingly expansive military forces, and provide support in contingency situations such as having to evacuate Chinese nationals (as happened in Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015). It is part of China's present and future economic and geopolitical considerations, and a key component of plans to project itself regionally and worldwide.

The geo-economic logic of the base, given its 12,000-kilometer distance from the port of Shanghai, is to aid the protection of those interests using maritime routes across the Indian Ocean, but also Chinese interests on Africa's eastern coast. The two areas are closely connected in the present, expansive phase of the Belt and Road Initiative six years into its creation.

Could China build similar naval bases in Latin America?

The geopolitical logic concerns China's aspiration to become a global maritime power, with increasing responsibilities in contributing to peace and security in the face of traditional and non-traditional threats — such as piracy and terrorist acts — and safeguarding global public goods.

The base would be instrumental in any Chinese initiative to aid peacemaking in Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan or between two of its oil-supplying partners, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It also helps it protect maritime routes, in conjunction with Western policing of Somali waters, and ensure the safety of Chinese nationals in Yemen and Chinese UN peacekeepers, who are currently deployed in the Western Sahara, Mali, Congo, Sudan and South Sudan.

All of this leads to another big question: Could China build similar naval bases in Latin America? For the moment, the answer seems to be no. And that's because the conditions that allowed for the Djibouti base do not yet exist in this region.

Chinese UN peacekeepers — Photo: Yin Gang/ZUMA

Lieutenant-General He Lei stated in January 2019 that two conditions were needed: First, that the base would improve a Chinese blue-helmet mission and second, that it come at the request of a host country. Regarding the first condition, China has 4,500 UN troops, but for now, they're all in the Middle East and Africa. None are in Latin America.

China's current military presence in this hemisphere, boosted since 2015 with visits to Beijing by regional military officials, centers around agreements on cooperation, logistical support, mutual visits, and sales or donations of arms and equipment. While Ecuador did propose, a decade ago, that China participate commercially in the Manta port and base after refusing to green light a continued U.S. military presence, the current Ecuadoran government discourages Chinese military presence in its territory.

It is part of China's present and future economic and geopolitical considerations.

Similarly, Chinese interests remain purely commercial in the Salvadoran port of La Unión and at the ends of the Panama Canal, despite stated U.S. concerns that the next step could be a Chinese naval presence, or that Chinese multinationals could exert control over shipping flows in the waterway. So far, Chinese military interests in Latin America have only developed significantly in Argentina and Venezuela.

At the space research station in Argentina's far-southern Neuquén department, China coordinated its Change 4 mission, in January, to the moon's hidden face. Fears remain that the station and its 35-meter wide antenna, which are outside Argentine government control, will engage in military espionage and that its real activities are not of a civilian nature.

In Venezuela, China's military presence complements those of Russia and Cuba, which beside backing the government of President Nicolás Maduro, engage in joint military exercises to safeguard its border with Colombia. But conditions can radically change in the hemisphere in coming years.

The Salvadoran port of La Unión — Photo: CEPA/Wikimedia Commons

The Djibouti base's main lesson for Latin America is that as Chinese economic and geopolitical interests advance, a naval presence to protect them becomes more plausible. China's economic presence in Latin America has expanded in the past four years in the framework of the CELAC community of Latin American and Caribbean states, so perhaps in the near future, Chinese troops will have to escort merchant vessels in hypothetical situations of instability in certain key, coastal states.

China's military presence complements those of Russia and Cuba.

But this has not yet happened and the Chinese government is being careful not to trigger any alarm bells in region, which has historically been in the U.S. sphere of influence. As Latin America is not yet crucial to the Belt and Road Initiative and while some key actors like Brazil and Mexico are wary of enhanced Chinese presence and remain "deferential" to the United States, Beijing has some way to go before attaining any geopolitical objective in this hemisphere.

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