Strengthening China’s military presence in Latin America is one of the many manifestations of Beijing’s increased activity on the international stage. Arms sales is a subset of the Chinese military’s growing involvement in Latin America. Yet, Chinese arms sales represent a small portion of its military sales and Latin America’s arms purchases from around the globe. In an arms buyer-seller relationship, the benefits of increased sales do not reside exclusively with the seller, which in this case is China. Latin American governments are also seeking to diversify their arms purchases to defend national interests, including achieving measures of autonomy beyond its relations with Washington—the predominant power in the region. While Beijing’s presence around the world is increasingly noteworthy, Latin America’s goal of establishing itself as a truly sovereign region is an equally important factor.
China began forging diplomatic ties with most Latin American states from the early 1970s, while Taiwan served as the formal “Chinese” interlocutor with the region in the 30 years prior. During that period, Mainland China’s arms production was almost entirely domestic in nature, and with only the most rudimentary of economic connections between Beijing and the region. Latin American states in the 1970s began opening relations with China but in many cases these were highly ideological anti-Communist states , which recoiled at the rhetoric of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Gang of Four (1976-1977).
The opening of the Chinese economy and the attendant growth of an export arms industry beginning in the 1980s was not the natural precedent for ties between the region and China. During this period, China‘s accelerated efforts to develop an arms industry coincided with a period of deep economic turmoil in Latin America. The overwhelming majority of states in the region (Colombia being a notable exception) were facing the ‘Debt Crisis’ of the 1980s, which dramatically curtailed Latin American arms purchases from all sources (e.g. American, Russian).
Latin America and China opened the door to an arms relationship with the economic ‘reforms’ of the late 1980s. At that point, China was opening its military’s role in arms proliferation around the world in the 1990s , but Latin America could not afford to purchase many arms as the political emphasis was on reducing the military’s role in the economy and society. Democratically elected governments throughout the region encouraged their respective armed forces to return to the barracks and accept that their traditionally large portion of budgets—including arms purchases—would remain permanently low.
Furthermore, Latin America’s military threats were almost invariably domestic in nature rather than strategic. Most Latin American military concerns hinge on the domestic political threats that have plagued the region for years. As a result, this is not a region where major new classes of arms are necessary or financially required because of an existential threat posed by a neighboring state. The conflicts most states have faced over the past fifty years have been challenges to the types of regimes in place, not attempts to eradicate a country. The most prominent of these threats is in Colombia where the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) have waged an armed insurgency against Bogotá for almost six decades. Yet there is no public source of information indicating that Beijing has any interest in becoming involved in this conflict where Washington has a substantial commitment to keeping the Colombian government in power. While there are fewer states in the region facing insurgencies today, there is less funding available in these states for purchasing arms since other priorities compete for the national budgets. This fact, along with pressure to deter Latin America from becoming the center of an international arms race, has limited the region’s ability to search for arms sales.
China and Latin America in the new millennium
China issued a White Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean  in November 2008 immediately before President Hu Jintao’s visit to the 16th Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) Leaders meeting in Lima, Peru. That document, the first of its kind for underscoring Beijing’s relations with this part of the world, discussed military ties within the broader context of growingly auspicious Chinese ties with Latin America. The White Paper discusses the advantages of military-to-military ties as part of “stronger political mutual trust and closer cooperation in economic, trade, science and technology, culture and education, and mutual support and close cooperation in international affairs” . The White Paper does not include any commentary on arms sales to the region. The evidence confirms that China’s involvement has a people-to-people focus, rather than one of arms sales, to this point in the decade through military officers traveling to the region for “professional development and the placement of military attachés” .
One reason for the lack of ties is that the militaries of Latin America have limited resources with which to spend on arms procurement. While China is not desperate for arms sales to boost revenue as Russia was in the 1990s amidst an ailing industry, by contrast, the Latin American militaries do not hold the prospect of being outstanding potential markets in the long-term. Latin American armed forces, except for Cuba and Venezuela, prefer U.S. or European arms—even at the risk of being cut off from re-supply options should political problems arise. The region simply does not have a long enough track record with China to know those ties would be continued should an international crisis arise. Yet, Beijing’s ability to sell a small number of arms to the region is leading to an enhanced presence there. Similarly, Argentina and Colombia have considered a range of helicopters and armored personnel carriers, respectively .
According to a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) National Defense University graduate writing in Military Review, Bolivia, Peru, and Uruguay are all rumored to have purchased aircraft from China such as the 2007 sale of M60s to La Paz as a result of a $35 million line of credit from Beijing . Uruguay has also been interested in J7 aircraft, potentially to wipe out Uruguay’s debt to China. The author also proposes that arms sales ties between China and Brazil, Peru, and Cuba are important aspects of Beijing’s involvement in arming this area of the world.
Venezuela and Cuba
The state that has attracted the most international attention (and concern) about arms purchases is Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez Frías, since late 1998 . While military missions and various other high-level governmental visits regularly transpire between Caracas and Beijing, all indications are that the greatest volume of arms sales to the South American republic are Russian, not Chinese. Moscow has proven a willing supplier of arms, including Su30-MK combat aircraft to maintain its significant position in the region . In 2010, China will deliver six of the eighteen K-8 Karakorum trainer or light attack planes that it sold to Venezuela, and is lending Ecuador $52 million to buy aircraft for its air force. In early 2009, Ecuador signed a contract for $60 million to buy Chinese air defense radars, its first purchases from China in 15 years (See "China’s Rising Profile in International Arms Sales," China Brief, December 16, 2009)
While Moscow and Beijing may both aim to disrupt the U.S. legacy of predominance in the region, the Chinese leadership has moved more cautiously in providing the volatile Venezuelan leader with fodder for more irritation to Washington. China’s arms sales have all been relatively small in nature and far less likely to appear as a direct threat against U.S. forces, which might be in neighboring Colombia, the strongest U.S. ally in the region and a state recently acknowledged to allow Washington to use its bases for ‘counter-drug’ operations to the national furor of others in the region.
China does promote more regular military-to-military visits with Venezuela than the United States currently does but the arms sales that have attracted the most international attention have been those from Russia. China’s military and senior political leadership have made a number of trips to Caracas over this decade and similar trips from the Venezuelan capital to Beijing have garnered international headlines but the crux of those visits has been Beijing’s virtually insatiable desire for energy arrangements around the world. Venezuela’s military has had the opportunity to learn at the PLA NDU Foreign Officers’ campus since the 1990s but that is a greater basis to the ties between the states than are arms sales .
Cuba would appear a logical destination for Chinese arms except that the ideological links between these two states have historically proven exceptionally tense rather than easy. Few areas of Latin America draw such a rapid response from Washington, as does Cuba, illustrated by decades of U.S. suspicion over Soviet activities there. Cuba does not have much money to buy arms and Beijing appears reluctant to offer anything to upset Washington with whom China has much more important relations than any that would come from selling arms to Cuba.
The major area where anyone would see strategic importance of Chinese arms sales to the region would be in Brazil. This vast state with a substantial and relatively improving economy, and a country with almost two hundred million people seeking to attain international status as a great power offers a logic for improving ties with a China seeking to prove that Washington is not the sole superpower around the world. More importantly, Brazil has become an important source of many things that China seeks in the world: food, deep sea drilling technology, satellite technology, and improving status around the world as a ‘non-aligned state’. Brazil and China have signed a number of agreements, through the increasing number of exchange visits between militaries and politicians of the nations, which include sharing development activities in a number of technologies that can include missile technology and nuclear activities. Both of these states harbor national aspirations that raise the incentives to cooperate in ways that no other states do for China.
Yet, these developments still do not mean that China is selling substantial arms packages to the Brazilians. While each state aspires to improve its position in the international community, the very conditions that allow it to do so necessitate that the state has a greater investment in international regimes that may seek to limit the attitudes which promote arms sales and arms production cooperation.
Beijing’s military-to-military ties are growing with the states of South America across the board: military missions, educational exchanges and arms sales. This activity is part of Beijing’s overall advancement of a foreign policy agenda aimed at raising China’s role as a great power; one that is both respected and reckoned with around the world. Latin America is clearly not China’s top priority and perhaps never will be—this means that Beijing will not have to challenge the United States in a direct way in that hemisphere yet it can use as many opportunities to improve its relationship with this broad region of hundreds of millions of potential partners at the expense of Washington and Taiwan. This overall increase in ties satisfies the national objectives of China and of the Latin American states as each seeks to diversify its relationships and move the hemisphere beyond a U.S.-centric orientation. Beijing welcomes the opportunity to sell arms to the region because of both the profit and prestige that these arms sales represent. Yet, these sales have not presented a serious challenge to U.S. dominance in the region.
The future will likely see China retain a role in arms sales to the region but the relative importance of that role will depend on the region’s interests in military modernization as well as the importance that Washington puts on its mil-mil ties with Latin America. Both of those remain open-ended questions at present. It would appear, however, that Washington will remain less interested in sales to this region than in the past, because of its concerns about developments in Southwest Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, ironically opening the door to possible Russian and Chinese arms deals in Latin America.
1. Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, for example, were violently opposed to leftists in their societies, taking steps to liquidate communists over several years. Other countries, such as those in the Andean region or Central America, were not as organized in their activities against communism but were not open to economic ties with Beijing’s still state-driven economy.
2. An accessible piece on the development of China’s arms sales abroad is Evan Medeiros and Bates Gill, Chinese Arms Exports: Policy, Players, and Process (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2000).
3. “China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean”, accessed at https://www.gov.cn/english/official/2008-11/05/content_1140347.htm on 28 january 2010
4. “China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean”, p. 1, accessed at https://www.gov.cn/english/official/2008-11/05/content_1140347.htm
5. Daniel Erickson, “The New Challenge: China and the Western Hemisphere”, testimony before House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, 11 June 2008.
6. Loro Horta, “In Uncle Sam’s Backyard: China’s Military Influence in Latin America”, Military Review, September-October 2008: 47-55 (52).
7. Loro Horta, “In Uncle Sam’s Backyard: China’s Military Influence in Latin America”, Military Review, September-October 2008: 47-55 (51).
8. This South American state’s rank from the 55th highest purchaser of conventional arms between 1999 and 2003 to 18 in the following four year period. SIPRI Arms Transfers Data, 2008, p. 6, accessed at www.sipri.org/ on 28 January 2010.
9. SIPRI Arms Transfers Data, 2008, p. 6 accessed at www.sipri.org/ on 28 January 2010.
10. The author lectured to the Foreign Officers’ course in December 1998 when Venezuelan officers were members of the course. Dan Erickson’s testimony also addresses this point.
[These views are personal and should not be in any way construed as representing those of the National War College, National Defense University, or Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. Government.]