How China Challenges US Influence in Latin America

China expands its military reach in Latin America through arms sales, gifts, and training programs. This subtle influence shift raises U.S. attention despite no immediate threat, highlighting the changing dynamics of power in the Americas.

How China Challenges US Influence in Latin America
Bulletproof vests gifted by China – just one way they're courting Latin America.

Gradually, China increases its supply of military equipment in Latin America, especially in nations such as Peru, Venezuela and Costa Rica, which draws attention in the United States, said professor at the United States Army War College, Evan Ellis, when participate in the China-Mexico Conference Series organized by UNAM.

Accompanied by Enrique Dussel Peters, coordinator of the Mexico-China Studies Center of this study house, the American researcher reflected that although there is concern, the reality is that the current administration of President Joe Biden does not seek to hinder the operations of sovereign nations.

Although there are no formal bases or alliance, there is an increase in military relations and commercial presence, either due to the possibility of dual use of knowledge or training on how to put ships in check; It is not that this is a plot against the United States, but if one has the responsibility of defending the homeland it is necessary to consider that this creates a vulnerability, he commented.

The researcher offered the talk “Opportunities and challenges of the People's Republic of China for Mexico. Recent Chinese military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean”, in which he pointed out that so far seven lines of action taken by the Asian nation have been identified to position teams in the Latin American militia, police, and private security forces.

The also member of the Strategic Studies Institute explained that the first, and most obvious, is the sale of arms that has been evolving in the past 15 years, through the purchase of weapons by populist governments (Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia), which Before they acquired Russian equipment, and now they have Hongung K-8W fighter planes, military radars, armored vehicles, C-802 anti-ship missiles, helicopters, and others such as SAIC/IVECO ambulances.

Although anti-United States governments, such as Argentina, Peru, Trinidad, and Tobago and Brazil, have also begun to acquire limited quantities of Chinese weapons, said the professor at the United States Army War College.

In addition, it has been seen that China has given “gifts” to develop relations with the security sector. The specialist specified that Peru, for example, received armored vehicles in 2023; Bolivia trucks and boats; Colombia, military clothing; Dominican Republic, motorcycles and cars; and Costa Rica, dual-use trucks.

It is important to mention that they have not only been gifts to the military, but also to police officers. For example, the Dominican Republic received 140 motorcycles and also some armored vehicles; Costa Rica, which changed its relations by recognizing mainland China, has accepted low-profile gifts such as a police training building, motorcycles and, most recently, 2,000 bulletproof vests and helmets, Ellis said.

There is another point, it is the hiring problem. Latin American nations have reported numerous difficulties with the products received due to incorrect translation of manuals, excessive vibration in trucks or poor quality of ammunition. This situation means that even when there is the intention to buy more, purchases have stopped by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

There is also an intermittent military presence. Ellis recalled arrivals of the Chinese hospital ship “Arco de Paz” from 2011 to 2019 in the region, but also military operations of Chinese frigate exercises in Chile and Brazil, which have become increasingly continuous. High-level visits, such as that of Commissioner Yuan Huazhai to the Brazilian navy in June 2023, have increased.

The last line of action is the training of the Latin American police where officers receive studies at the Changping National Defense University (Beijing), or specialized courses from the Naval Forces; There is news that there is an attempt to participate more in this market.

The most significant thing for me was a forum on global security held in China where there were 50 nations, including Nicaragua and Suriname; It is not something so dangerous, but there is a tendency to try to strengthen ties in a similar way to what has been done in other areas, the researcher concluded.