When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Djibouti

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.

Is Chinese maritime power looking at Latin America?
Is Chinese maritime power looking at Latin America?
Ulises Granados

-Analysis-

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.


*Granados is head of the Asia-Pacific program at ITAM, Mexico City's private, Autonomous Technological Institute.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

Patronage Or Politics? What's Driving Qatar And Egypt Grand Rapprochement

For Cairo, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil,” with anger directed at Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, and others critical of Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood ouster. But the vitriol is now gone, with the first ever visit by Egyptian President al-Sisi to Doha.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with the Emir of Qatar in June 2022 in Cairo

Beesan Kassab, Daniel O'Connell, Ehsan Salah, Hazem Tharwat and Najih Dawoud

For the first time since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi traveled to Doha last month on an official visit, a capstone in a steadily building rapprochement between the two countries in the last year.

Not long ago, however, the photo-op capturing the two heads of state smiling at one another in Doha would have seemed impossible. In the wake of the Armed Forces’ ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar and Egypt traded barbs.

In the lexicon of the intelligence-controlled Egyptian press landscape, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil” working to undermine Egypt’s stability. Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, was banned from Egypt, but, from its social media accounts and television broadcast, it regularly published salacious and insulting details about the Egyptian administration.

But all of that vitriol is now gone.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ