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In this sense Latin America has become something of an economic and political laboratory for the future international order. As America’s ability to impose a rules based international system wanes, China offers an enticing alternative with trade relations and investments offered seemingly without any political or economic conditionality.

The challenge for US policy analysts is divining China’s long-term strategic ambitions in the region, or, more accurately, what its presence means for the US. As one analyst wrote of the military situation in Latin America, “The growing Chinese presence in Latin America implies that the Western hemisphere cannot be considered a US sanctuary in a future conflict with the PRC, and that the United States will be forced to devote significant resources to protecting its operations there, as well as in the Asian theatre of operations.”

The situation is not yet quite as dire as that quote suggests. Although Chinese arms sales have increased to the region, the quantity and type of equipment involved is not yet a strategic threat. Much of the equipment is logistical and little of it for combat or direct power projection. China is establishing influence rather than a strategic beachhead.

At the moment Chinese military activity is fairly limited and mainly consists of visits and consultations but the sale of military equipment is gathering pace. The foundation for further military cooperation has been established. Security ties with the US are too important to be forsaken and the Latin American counties are too unclear about China’s own long-term ambitions to leap into definitive military alliances. Latin American perspectives on China are nuanced. They seek to engage China in order to understand the nature and extent of its power and influence. Equally, they want to acquire military equipment at affordable prices, something China is happy to offer.

The reality is that Latin America is a comparatively small market for arms sales. The continental militaries are small and their defence budgets modest. The defence concerns of most of the countries are internal conflict and security, not over-the-horizon threats. China is able to plug the resulting equipment requirements cheaply.  In the other key area, military exchanges, China and Latin America have reciprocal high-level visits but the numbers do not come close to matching those with the US and Europe. Defence ties with the US and Europe still carry considerable prestige.

The US and Europe cannot afford to be complacent in considering Latin America from a military and strategic perspective. They do need a more proactive policy of military engagement with the region to stem or at least moderate the nature of China’s regional power. Regionally the increase in arms sales has complemented China’s goal of “securing access to natural resources and export markets”. The aim is to prevent the emergence of defence facilitation with China becoming sole or main defence supplier. There are early signs of concern that need to be addressed. For instance, despite improving relations with the UK and US, Argentina recently allowed the creation of a Chinese satellite monitoring base in Patagonia.
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