The PLA in Latin America

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 20

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) increasingly operates as an instrument of diplomatic statecraft for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PLA, an arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rather than a national army, is enhancing its ties with various militaries around the world, illustrated by military-to-military visits to the United States, India and other nations, fleet visits to ports around the globe and various other visits by senior PLA officers. The military’s role constitutes just one part of an expanding presence that China manifests as a “major power” on the global stage.

In particular, the PLA’s involvement with Latin America illustrates Beijing’s pursuit of a multi-faceted strategy to expand its global presence. Latin America, of course, has the historical overlay of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine of 1823, whereby the United States jealously guarded the region from “foreign” intervention, often disregarding the distress of others in and outside of the region.

Taiwan, officially recognized as the Republic of China (ROC), was the “Chinese” entity in Latin America for much of the twentieth century but posed no threat to the Monroe Doctrine. China’s formal relations with most states in Latin America began–in earnest–in the early 1970s when Beijing won diplomatic recognition from Chile and Mexico [1]. At present, only a handful of states in Central America and Paraguay still convey diplomatic status to Taiwan as a sovereign independent state. All the others Latin American states recognize Beijing as the legal representative of “China.”

One of the earliest methods for the PLA to make in-roads in this region came with the opening of the PLA National Defense University (PLA NDU) in 1985, with its attendant “foreign course” for militaries in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. This course, barred for PLA officers except for teaching faculty, offered a counterbalance to the Soviet and U.S. professional military education (PME) courses that proliferated during much of the Cold War era. Additionally, it was a manifestation of China’s continuing commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement principles dating to the 1950s, a posture important to the PRC’s desire for support as a sovereign, formerly exploited state during the “Century of Humiliation” [2].

The opportunity to study at the PLA NDU is one that has consistently attracted the attention of Latin American military officers, as U.S. ties with the region have ebbed and flowed. Officers from Venezuela, Bolivia and other states on less-than-favorable terms with Washington have attended PME courses in Beijing, brining benefits to bilateral state-to-state relationships and enhancing Latin American militaries that have few educational opportunities abroad.

Twenty years after the creation of the PLA NDU, its foreign course remains vibrant for improving ties, including serving as a channel for continuing and expanding ties between Hugo Chávez Frías’ Venezuelan armed forces and the PLA. Additionally, the PLA NDU continues offering PME to Latin American militaries that would otherwise not have the opportunity to attend U.S. schools because of the sheer challenge of securing seats in the de facto competition with militaries from other parts of the world where the United States seeks to enhance its military-to-military ties [4].

New Millennium, New Push for China in Latin America

There is a significant increase in PRC interest in Latin America during the first decade of the twenty-first century. As China’s need for energy resources, food and market access grow, so has Beijing’s interest in using the military instruments of statecraft to attain its goals. Since the mid-1990s, senior leaders of the PLA has been making annual visits to and welcoming reciprocal delegations from the major Latin American states and the entire region.

These visits began as relatively quiet affairs meant to “show the flag,” but without any substantial accomplishments, these shows were more of an effort by Beijing to oust Taiwan’s presence from Latin America. At that time, Beijing was primarily concerned about Taipei’s moves toward de jure independence, actions likely to require leveraging support from Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the region: Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Beijing trumpeted the success of these military exchanges without requiring many concrete results, because they represented a foreign, non-U.S. presence in the region that did not elicit any protest from Washington.

Since 2000, military exchanges have accelerated and are common throughout the region. The PLA leadership has brought large delegations to Latin American states, including Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and even Colombia. The latter’s participation is particularly noteworthy because U.S. funding for “Plan Colombia” forms a crucial aspect of the Colombian government’s efforts to finish off forty year old guerrilla groups, thus engendering tremendous loyalty on the part of the Andrés Pastrana Arango (1998-2002) and Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-present) regimes.

Vélez is unabashedly U.S. President George W. Bush’s closest ally in Latin America, yet military exchanges between Bogotá and Beijing have increased in the last several years Colombia’s de facto alliance with the United States not withstanding, Beijing has increasingly good ties with Colombia.

Another area where PLA’s military diplomacy has taken a noteworthy role is in the small European enclave states of northeast Latin America. The PLA has played a major role in developing these exceedingly poor states’ infrastructure at precisely the time when these states are producing more of the primary goods that Beijing is working so vigorously to procure around the world.

The PLA has been providing construction assistance to Suriname, for example, for the better part of this decade as China has been increasing trade links. The PLA interaction also provides these relatively isolated nations with military exchanges that they have great difficulty obtaining from other sources. This factor is often forgotten by those in Washington critical of Beijing’s activities in the region.

Venezuela: Rubbing the Burr under Washington’s Saddle

The most visible increase in PLA’s influence in Latin America has occurred in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez Frías makes known daily his hatred of Washington’s pervasive shadow over the region. Chávez governs a state with a virtual monoculture export economy of a commodity Beijing covets: petroleum. The desire for enhanced military ties clearly appeals to both Venezuela and the PRC. Venezuela’s president wants to achieve autonomy from Washington much as China did in the mid-twentieth century, and delights in taking highly visible steps to call attention to any ties with a foreign military that is likely to upset Washington [4]. Beijing wants to open better relations with militaries throughout Latin America with Venezuela currently the easiest to engage.

Chávez has also done everything possible to cut his nation’s ties with the U.S. military, including shutting off both PME opportunities and weapons sales; rejecting any guidelines that might allow U.S. assistance; and other overt actions that make Beijing necessary to his military’s well-being. At the same time, the United States has become increasingly critical of Chávez’s motives and actions. In the Venezuelan case, PLA involvement in the region is as much a result of Chávez’s actions as those of Beijing. Instead of China having to assert greater PLA military diplomacy, which risks it being perceived aggressive, it is taking advantage of a set of conditions simply handed to it by the United States and by the Venezuelan leader.

Similarly, Chávez wants to acquire PLA weapons because he refuses to buy from Washington. The weapons purchased by prior regimes in Caracas require replenishment and refurbishment that Washington no longer allows, nor will Chávez request, thus Beijing becomes a logical vendor for Venezuela’s needs.

Crucial to evaluating the underlying forces driving Venezuelan-Chinese military ties is understanding that they are much more driven by Venezuelan than Chinese interests. This is an important distinction because it indicates that Beijing is attentive to the Monroe Doctrine in this region. It also testifies to the Chinese awareness of Chávez’s unpredictable nature. In the Chinese calculus, Chávez is simply not worth what could become a high cost if PLA involvement became sufficient to arouse Washington’s suspicions above a tolerable level.

PLA Military Diplomacy: Lessons and Implications

Latin America is not the place that China is most interested in today—Beijing’s ties and economic stakes in both Africa and Southeast Asia are much more important. Both the continent and the region are closer geographically, more advanced historically and likely to engender greater result for less cost. Latin America does offer a new arena for the PLA and new opportunities for expanded links as Washington remains absorbed in wars in Central and Southeast Asia.

As the PRC seeks to engage Latin America in a multiple-pronged approach, the military instrument’s utility is becoming increasingly important for Beijing. Military-to-military ties represent a zero-sum situation from the view of some Latin American militaries, yet if they are involved with the PLA, they need not deal with the traditionally frustrating judgmentalism characterizing long-term links with the U.S. military.

Latin Americans have long memories of inconsistent U.S. policies during the past two centuries. For instance, they have never forgotten the Carter administration’s prohibition on military sales to Chile over human rights questions. Few indications exist that Beijing would exercise such judgmentalism except over the Taiwan issue, a matter increasingly going in the PRC’s favor as more states choose to shift diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, as Costa Rica did in mid-2007.

Additionally, as the PLA becomes a modern force, its capabilities will be increasingly able to execute the strategy of forward presence globally, and in a more limited sense with Latin American states. PLA Navy (PLAN) fleet visits, although insignificant relative to those of the U.S. Navy, are increasingly occurring around the world. These drills demonstrate a modernizing fleet’s ability to show the flag in a way that was not previously possible.

China’s leadership thus garners both increased diplomatic links with states far away and improves PLAN capabilities. As the PRC and the PLA take a more public role in the world, these are increasingly crucial goals for a state seeking respect as a world power.

China’s increasingly effective military diplomacy in Latin America also points to a more disconcerting issue, the United States’ lack of recognition of the changes occurring while U.S. prestige is waning on the global stage. The traditional U.S. military links with sister armed forces in the region have deteriorated over the past six years, making room for PLA’s involvement more visible and effective. PLA diplomacy in Latin America may not in fact be an absolute zero-sum equation for the United States, but reveals the deteriorating U.S. understanding of fundamental global shifts that appear growing systematically.


1. The region is those states south of the Rio Grande and unlike many other analyses, does include the three European enclaves of Suriname, French Guiana and British Guiana.

2. This phrase is commonly used to denote the period from approximately 1839-1949, when China was subjected to imperialist assault by Western powers and Japan.

3. U.S. PME seats are allocated by invitation, not strictly speaking a competition. The United States, along with other countries, seeks to invite officers from states with whom it wants to enhance overall relations as does China, India, or any other state inviting officers to attend schooling.

4. In the late 1990s, Chávez toured Baghdad next to Saddam Hussein in a highly visible visit that attracted much criticism but accomplished his goal of setting him in the camp opposing U.S. criticisms of the Iraqi dictator.