Over the past two decades, China has strengthened its economic ties with countries across Latin America, but it is China’s growing influence in the region that increasingly worries Washington.
The growing threat that China poses to the United States has moved forward in the American consciousness as defense officials and lawmakers continue to watch for trends emerging from Beijing’s growing relationships around the world.
China’s quiet expansion into the southern hemisphere has increasingly caught the attention of US defense officials and lawmakers, including Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar from Florida, who last month called attention to growing security threats emerging from Latin America.
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At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Salazar told lawmakers that Argentina, along with countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, is allowing China to gain a military foothold in Latin America.
“[Chinese President] Salazar told lawmakers that Xi Jinping has visited Latin America more times than Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden combined in the past 10 years. “The Chinese are not here for trade. They are here for war.”
The Florida congresswoman pointed to China’s sales of military equipment and weapons to the region over the past decade, and claimed that Argentina is now considering opening a Chinese fighter jet factory.
Argentina’s ambassador to the United States, Jorge Arguello, dismissed Salazar’s allegations earlier this month as “absurd.”
However, Salazar also called attention to the “400 football field” deep space station in the middle of the Argentine Patagonian desert as another major security concern.
she said, before wondering if this program contains anything regarding China’s recent “balloon” activity over the United States
The ambassador mocked Salazar’s concerns about the space station, saying he had visited it personally and claiming it was similar to another agreement Argentina had with the European Space Agency.
However, one Latin American expert told Fox News Digital that the United States has serious concerns when it comes to this space station.
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“We don’t have any evidence of what’s going on there and neither do the Argentines. We think so [China’s] “Using that as a mechanism to monitor our space activity, we’d otherwise be information gatherers,” said Juan Cruz, former director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council.
Beijing’s involvement in Latin America extends far beyond its military interests there.
China has a “physical presence” in 25 of the 31 countries in Latin America, and nearly 30% of its global lending goes to Latin America, according to Salazar’s office.
Trade between China and Latin America grew 26-fold from 2000 to 2020 – up from $12 billion to $315 billion according to the World Economic Forum.
This growth is expected to continue rising to more than $700 billion annually by 2035.
While the United States remains Latin America’s largest trading partner, China is rapidly moving ahead of Washington in almost every area in the region, including trade, security, technology, and diplomatic relations—an achievement it is doing largely through soft power.
“We woke up one day and the Chinese were in our neighborhood,” Cruz said. “This displacement is not only happening in business and government [and] Diplomatic influence but in terms of technology and what they’re doing around the world with much greater importance to the interests of the United States.”
Cruz explained that the United States has a “crisis-oriented” view when it comes to Latin American foreign policy, which generally means that Washington pays attention to regions after they are already in trouble or causing trouble for the United States.
“Chinese investment and Chinese participation are the opposite,” he said. “They’re investing, and they have a role that no one else is looking for.”
China first began investing in small domestic projects across Latin America in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s with the onset of the War on Terror, China had ramped up its investment in places like the Caribbean where former colonial powers were no longer spending so many of their resources.
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Cruz explained that this left a “vacuum” that China stepped in and filled, cementing itself as a major international player in Latin America.
“That’s how quickly they got into the game and bought their influence,” he said. “They come up with these little projects or insignificant things that you or I downplay, and yet they think about this in a completely different way.”
American companies have largely left Latin America for a variety of reasons related to corruption, legal standards, and other foreign financial incentives.
However, under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese companies have not only been deterred by the same hurdles, but have chosen to invest in projects that do not show clear or even immediate gains.
Cruz elaborated: “No one makes money from a public utility – that’s why they sell it. But the Chinese buy.” “And what makes them? It gets noticed. It has an impact.”
However, investing in public infrastructure and developing technology not only buys China into the region, it also opens it up to a certain amount of control.
“The Chinese are brilliant,” Cruz said. “They buy the conventions that don’t make a profit, but they get… an impact you can’t schedule.”
US and international defense officials have long warned about the intelligence China could collect through Huawei’s infrastructure and the threat this poses to international security.
However, Cruz pointed to another advantage that China gains in obtaining utility services such as water utilities, electricity and the Internet – bargaining chips.
“Do you want another country to operate and control this kind of infrastructure in your country?” Cruz doubted. “If they want, they can put a tool in their software that controls electricity remotely.
“This makes these countries more indebted to the Chinese,” he explained.
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The influence China is buying in Latin America seems to have security officials worried about the number of fronts on which Beijing is inserting itself, including natural resource acquisition, 5G development, space security, and geopolitical hotspots such as Taiwan security.
“The Chinese game guide isn’t just one. They have one tool after another that they use,” Cruz said, explaining that it has become nearly impossible to counter China in every sector they’re involved in.
“They opened 10 fronts against us. Are we fighting on the 10 fronts?” He completed. “Can it be done? I don’t know.”
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