The Beijing regime seeks to undercut traditional American influence in the hemisphere
China’s June 14 poaching of Panama, helping it to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China, belies a growing campaign by Beijing to seek greater economic and strategic influence in Latin America at the expense of the United States.
For too long the policy mandarins at the State Department have avoided ascribing hostile intent to China’s growing economic and political clout in Latin America. In the main, China places a priority on strengthening Latin America’s anti-democrats and is using its growing economic power in the region to expand its strategic options.
In poaching Panama, Beijing made two power plays. First Beijing increased the diplomatic isolation of democratic Taiwan, which it ultimately seeks to destroy to help displace American power in Asia. Also, having long dominated the Panama Canal via commercial control and after establishing diplomatic relations, Beijing urged Panama to join its vast $1 trillion “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative from China to Europe, which would give this program a global projection.
Long-standing management of the Panama Canal by Chinese companies, and Chinese corporate purchase of one Panamanian port, is now complimented by Chinese commercial investment in 10 more Latin American waterborne or landbridge “canal” projects. While some of these projects may be too grandiose to succeed, what matters is that China is seeking to achieve a position of economic and then political primacy in Latin America. It should be a matter of deep concern that China could deny the U.S. Navy access to the Panama Canal, and then also deny access to the future canals being built by Chinese companies.
China’s anti-democratic bent in Latin America is further proven by its decisive economic support for Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro regime. Hundreds of Chinese-made Norinco VN-4 armored cars protect Mr. Maduro’s police thugs killing Venezuelans protesting his socialist basket-case policies. China has also become the strongest ally of Cuba’s Castro family dictatorship and a growing source for its economic support.
China has sought to translate its economic-political clout into strategic gains. Late in the past decade, China began courting Argentina’s military, and by early 2015 was on the verge of offering the regime of Christina Fernandez the start of a rearmament program that could have enabled a second war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. By early 2015, China was offering Argentina modern, fourth-generation Chengdu J-10B combat aircraft, modern frigates and co-production of wheeled armored vehicles.
Since early in this decade, China has been marketing deadly short-range ballistic missiles to Latin America. Just last April, China marketed one of its most modern unmanned combat aerial vehicles, the Chengdu Wing Loong-2, at an airshow in Mexico City.
While the Argentine arms deals cooled off after the October 2015 election of President Mauricio Macri, China maintains control of a space tracking and control base in Argentina’s Neuquen Province. This deep Southern Hemisphere facility will allow China’s People’s Liberation Army to better control future military-space assets it requires to attack U.S. space systems, which could happen in the opening phase of a Chinese attack against Taiwan.
This drives home the point, America cannot ignore China’s aggression against its democratic allies and friends, including Taiwan. Washington can and should play a more active role in lauding Taiwan’s democratic example and encouraging Latin states to sustain a vibrant relationship with Taipei, even if it is “unofficial,” as does the United States.
Washington must also make clear to its Latin friends that allowing China to threaten freedom in Taiwan, and to sustain cruel dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba, ultimately also threatens their freedom. The Trump administration should consider translating the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military growth into many languages, including Spanish, to enable a wider public understanding of China’s threats to freedom.
Like previous administrations, the Trump administration is seeking to gain China’s decisive support in containing North Korea’s now-imminent nuclear missile threats. But for 25 years, Mr. Trump’s predecessors watched as China refused to reverse deep support for North Korea, even its missile programs, as it worked increasingly to undermine U.S. security interests on the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea and South China Sea.
Washington has little choice but to push back harder against Chinese belligerence in Asia if it wants to maintain its alliances and influence. In this hemisphere, the U.S. will have to formulate a new hard line against China’s strategic ambitions. This must be done now before China acquires its planned global military projection forces of aircraft carrier battle groups and large heavy-lift transport aircraft, which it could use to intimidate and to suppress Latin America’s still-fragile democracies.