Over the last decade, China has made remarkable inroads into the Latin American arms market. From almost zero in 2005 to over USD 130 million in 2014, China has carefully and systematically emerged as a major arms supplier to countries of the region and has shifted from a donor of logistics and medical equipment to a significant supplier of weapons and weapons systems.1
Traditionally, Latin American nations have opted for arms based on the ideology of their ruling regimes. Countries such as Nicaragua and Cuba were firmly in the Soviet camp while Peru flirted with socialism; this resulted in an influx of Soviet bloc arms such as various MiGs, Sukhoi Su-22s, T-series tanks and Soviet SAMs into these countries. The rest of the region was firmly in the Western camp as far as arms sales were concerned, and their armed forces were equipped with French combat aircraft, British ships and American transports and ageing tanks. When the Cold War ended, Russia made some inroads into the region with increased sales to Peru and minor sales to Uruguay, but America continued to dominate, with a brisk trade in foreign-used arms such as tanks and combat aircraft. Mention must also be made of the reasonably capable arms industries in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Chile, and Argentina retaining considerable industrial prowess despite its economic woes.
China’s foray into the region’s military market was initially in the form of non-lethal aid: uniforms, medical supplies, hospital equipment, engineering equipment and an extensive package of training at Chinese military academies for staff officers. This was combined with visits by a Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark in 2011 in a successful exercise of Beijing’s soft power.2 The impact of these initiatives, in particular the training at Chinese academies, should not be underestimated as several officers who attended such schools have attained positions of some power and influence in their respective countries. This has also been synchronized with China’s expanding economic footprint in the region. Its trade with the region rose to USD 289 billion in 2013 from only 12 billion in 2000 and it has also offered to invest over 250 billion.3
China’s breakthrough came when Venezuela’s then President Hugo Chavez, in his quest to diversify arms supplies given a somewhat uneasy relationship with the United States, turned to Russia for Su-30MKV fighters and to China for K-8 trainers and air search radars in 2008.4 Subsequently, the Chavez, and later Maduro, regimes made extensive purchases from China, including transport aircraft, self-propelled artillery and armoured personnel carriers, some of which were deployed to crush protesters in 2014.5 The Maduro Government has indicated that it wishes to purchase more Chinese arms, but the Venezuelan economic collapse may impact upon these plans. The next big success for China came in 2009 when a somewhat petulant act by a US government irritated with the left-leaning Evo Morales of Bolivia pressured the Czech Republic to cancel the sale of L-159 light attack/ trainers which make extensive use of American technology. Following the cancellation of the deal, Bolivia, aided by a loan from China, purchased six K-8 aircraft.6 Subsequent Bolivian purchases include six Z-9 helicopters.
The Bolivian deal highlights one of the factors for China’s success – American pressure on potential Western suppliers. In addition, the US has been unwilling to transfer state-of-the-art hardware to Latin America, with only Chile and (two decades before Chavez came to office) Venezuela operating F-16s and no other modern US combat aircraft serving in the region. In fact, outside of the Chilean F-16 and some infantry equipment, Latin American militaries are equipped with an arsenal of ageing hardware in need of replacement. China’s willingness to supply modern equipment at highly competitive prices makes purchases from it very attractive. China has also been willing to sell to states considered to be pariahs by the United States and its allies – such as Venezuela and Bolivia – and it is willing to offer financing packages as an additional incentive.7 It is this combination of political determination to penetrate the market, an “agnostic” approach to regimes, a readiness to supply the entire plethora of hardware with few restrictions and the use of China’s financial institutions to facilitate the purchase of military hardware that make China a formidable presence in the region.
China has not been averse to using its influence to subvert normal tendering and procurement processes, relying on courting leaders to secure arms deals. In two instances – Trinidad & Tobago and Argentina – deals were secured in large part because of personal connections with the respective leaders of those two countries. In the case of Trinidad & Tobago, the then Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, committed to the purchase of a 79m offshore patrol vessel (albeit now called a Long Range Vessel – LRV – and completely unarmed) in a deal that was widely criticized, coming on the heels of a messy arbitration against BAES over the cancellation of a deal for 3 OPVs of superior quality and being concluded in the absence of any naval experts and without any evaluation.8 The purchase of this vessel was apparently tied to a loan of USD 5 billion being offered by China to Trinidad. While the vessel, now designated CG 60 – Nelson 2, has been delivered, payment issues are yet to be resolved as a new government has chosen to re-examine the deal. Similarly, the Chinese company Huawei was awarded a contract to build a national command centre without going through the stipulated tender process.
Argentina’s cooperation with China blossomed under the leadership of then President Christine Fernandez de Kirchner, while that with the United States declined. In 2014, a comprehensive strategic partnership with China was announced and in 2015 President Fernandez de Kirchner pledged to purchase 110 VN-1 8×8 armoured personnel carriers, five 1,800-ton P-18A Malvinas-class OPVs, and 14 Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) FC-1/JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighters.9 If pursued, this deal would be the largest Chinese arms deal ever in Latin America. But with a new government in power in Buenos Aires, it remains to be seen whether the plans of the previous government will come to fruition especially since the centre-right government of Mauricio Macri may seek to pull Argentina’s foreign policy away from alignment with Russia, China and the ALBA alliance.10 These two examples highlight the potential drawbacks of finalizing arms deals through personal relationships as a change of government could jeopardize such arrangements.
While it is certainly true that China has not always had its own way with defence deals in Latin America – with Peru and Ecuador cancelling planned purchases – it is nonetheless true that China’s inroads into the region have been remarkable.11 This has serious implications for the region and for those seeking to limit or at least moderate Chinese influence in the region. Concern and focus has been placed on China’s trade, investment and other economic activity in Latin America. But, to date, little assessment has been made on the impact of China’s military sales to the region with respect to the building of influence and the subtle forging of alliances that could inevitably follow.
It is of interest to note that the United States, once the dominant influence over the armed forces of the region, is now in danger of losing that position to China and has already lost it in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela. Of further interest is that countries such as South Korea are also making inroads into the Latin American region with joint-ventures with Colombian and Peruvian companies for building patrol vessels and has exported trainer aircraft to Peru and anti-ship missiles to Colombia. As American influence wanes, will South Korea emerge as a rival to China in the region?
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.