In October, China ordered the deployment of a 25,000-ton, 300-bed hospital ship dubbed the “Peace Ark” into the Caribbean Sea. The goal: provide humanitarian aid and put on a friendly face for China’s growing international ambitions. This “soft power” mission was similar to related and ongoing U.S. humanitarian missions conducted in the region led by the USNS Comfort hospital ship, the USS Iwo Jima and USS Kearsarge amphibious assault ships and the HSV-2 Swift catamaran.
China’s military ambitions more broadly have pushed some analysts to see a looming threat: at sea, in the air and in space; and now also in the U.S.’s own “backyard.” But how much of China’s growing military capabilities are a credible challenge to the U.S. — or are just a lot of hype — is an open subject. The same is true for military-to-military relations between China and friendly nations, and it’s true in Latin America.
Likewise, China has contributed to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, and boosted arms sales and donations via countries ranging from Venezuela to Peru.
But while few observers will embrace China’s defense sales to Venezuela, some welcome China’s soft power efforts abroad as a means to integrate China’s military into a broader coalition of shared interests, and as a means to respond to humanitarian crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped reports from circulating about a rising and threatening Chinese dragon south of the border.
In a preview for an upcoming piece in Americas Quarterly, U.S. Army War College adjunct professor Gabriel Marcella writes:
The truth, though, doesn’t look anything like the headlines. Although military diplomacy and arms sales and transfers to some countries of the region have increased in the past decade, the quantity and type of equipment involved hardly represents the strategic threat suggested by the headline writers. Moreover, much of the equipment is logistical in nature; little of it is for combat or power projection.
Latin America as a whole also spends comparatively little on defense — although increasing at a brisk pace, the South American continent combined spends slightly more than the United Kingdom does alone, according to Swedish arms monitor SIPRI. That’s not a whole lot.
And training? The U.S. has the edge. U.S. officers are regularly trained in Latin American military academies and in reverse, but there are no Chinese officers studying in Latin American schools, Marcella says.
The alarmist reporting, much of it from U.S. sources, also ignores the Latin American perspective. Latin Americans are not simple bystanders. They seek to engage China in order to understand the nature and extent of China’s power and influence—and its effect on their national interests and foreign policies. They also want to keep their options open for acquiring military equipment at an affordable price and technology transfers for coproduction or independent production. They are also aware of the risks of acquiring a motley mix of systems from various nations, a prospect that makes maintenance expensive and readiness problematic.
However, Marcella points out a key difference between the U.S. and China’s Caribbean cruises. “Unlike the Chinese program,” he writes, “the USNS Comfort does not attend to armed forces personnel and administrative personnel of the countries it visits.”