Over the past two decades, China has intensified its economic ties with Latin American nations, but it is China’s growing influence in the region that is increasingly worrying Washington.
The growing threat China poses to the United States has been creeping ever further into the American consciousness as defense officials and lawmakers continue to monitor trends emerging from Beijing’s burgeoning relations around the world.
China’s quiet expansion in the Southern Hemisphere has increasingly attracted the attention of US defense officials and lawmakers, including Republican Florida Representative María Elvira Salazar, who drew attention to growing threats last month to security emerging from Latin America.
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In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Salazar told lawmakers that Argentina, along with nations like Venezuela and Bolivia, were allowing China to gain a military foothold in Latin America.
“[Chinese President] Xi Jinping has been to Latin America more times than President Obama, Trump and Biden combined in the past 10 years,” Salazar told lawmakers. “The Chinese are not here to trade. I’m here for the war.”
The Florida congresswoman highlighted Chinese sales of military equipment and weapons to the region over the past decade and said Argentina was now considering opening a Chinese fighter jet factory.
Argentina’s ambassador to the United States Jorge Arguello dismissed Salazar’s claims earlier this month as false and called them “absurd”.
However, Salazar also drew attention to a deep space station the size of “400 football fields” in the middle of the desert of Argentina’s Patagonia as another major security concern.
“I’m sure the Chinese are very interested in studying the stars and every constellation. But the problem is that Argentina has no idea what’s going on there because the Chinese won’t let them in,” she said before wondering if this program has something to do with China’s recent “ballooning” activity over the United States
The ambassador scoffed at Salazar’s concerns about the space station, saying he had personally visited it and said it was similar to another deal Argentina has with the European Space Agency.
However, a Latin American expert told Fox News Digital that the US has serious concerns when it comes to this space station.
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“We have no idea what happens there and neither do the Argentines. We believe it [China’s] using it as a mechanism to monitor our space activity and otherwise be an intelligence gatherer,” said Juan Cruz, former National Security Council senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Beijing’s involvement in Latin America goes far beyond its military interests.
China has a “physical presence” in 25 of 31 Latin American countries and nearly 30% of its global loans go to Latin America, according to Salazar’s office.
Trade between China and Latin America also grew 26-fold from 2000 to 2020, an increase from $12 billion to $315 billion according to the World Economic Forum.
This growth is expected to continue to increase, reaching more than $700 billion annually by 2035.
While the United States remains Latin America’s largest trading partner, China is rapidly surpassing Washington in almost every field in the region, including trade, security, technology and diplomatic relations, a feat it is largely accomplishing. part through soft power.
“We woke up one day and the Chinese were in our neighborhood,” Cruz said. “That shift is happening not only in business and government [and] diplomatic influence, but in terms of technology and what they’re doing around the world with much more relevance to US interests.”
Cruz explained that the US has a “crisis-oriented” view when it comes to Latin American foreign policy, which generally means Washington pays attention to regions after they’re already struggling or causing problems for the US
“Chinese investment and Chinese involvement are the opposite,” he said. “They’re investing and they’re having a role that nobody’s watching.”
China began investing in small local projects across Latin America in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s, as the war on terror began, China stepped up its investments in places like the Caribbean, where former colonial powers were no longer spending many of their resources.
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Cruz explained that this has left a “void” that China has stepped in and filled, consolidating itself as a major international player in Latin America.
“That’s how quickly they got in and bought their influence,” he said. “They come in with these little projects or insignificant things that you or I downplay, yet they’re thinking about it in a completely different way.”
American businesses have largely left Latin America for a variety of reasons related to corruption, legal parameters, and other foreign financial incentives.
However, under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese companies have not only not been deterred by the same hurdles, but have chosen to invest in projects that show no obvious or even immediate payoffs.
“Nobody makes money on a public service – that’s why they’re selling it. But the Chinese are buying,” Cruz explained. “And what gets them? Gets noticed. Gets flu.”
However, investing in public infrastructure and technological development not only wins China favor in the region, it opens them up to a degree of scrutiny.
“The Chinese are brilliant,” Cruz said. “They buy deals that don’t make money, but they get… influence that you can’t tabulate.”
US and international defense officials have long warned of information China could gather through its Huawei infrastructure and the threat this poses to international security.
However, Cruz pointed to another benefit China gains from acquiring utilities like water, electricity and the internet: a bargaining chip.
“Do you want another country to manage and control that kind of infrastructure in your country?” Cruz asked. “If they wanted to, they could put a tool in their software that controls your electricity remotely.
“It makes these countries more related to the Chinese,” he explained.
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The influence China appears to be buying in Latin America has security officials worried about the number of fronts Beijing is entering, including the acquisition of natural resources, the development of 5G, space security and major hot topics geopolitical such as Taiwan’s security.
“The Chinese playbook is not just one. They have tool after tool after tool that they’re employing,” Cruz said, explaining that it’s becoming nearly impossible to counter China in every industry they’re involved in.
“They opened 10 fronts against us. Are we fighting on all 10 fronts?” He continued. “Can it be done? I don’t know.”