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China’s Rising Influence in Latin America




On May 3, 2024, Major General Pettus from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base spoke to the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations about his concerns regarding China's growing influence in Latin America. Although he noted that these influences currently hold only the potential for negative outcomes, he stressed the need for continued vigilance to prevent these risks from becoming reality.


Why Should We Be Worried About China's Growing Influence in Latin America?


The Chinese government aims to slowly reshape the world order to align with its interests, using a carefully designed strategy that avoids direct conflict. This approach, often called the "long game," enables China to quietly expand its influence while posing strategic challenges to other nations. Democratic countries may unknowingly enter a phase where they face growing coercive influence from China, which could jeopardize their own core interests. General Pettus emphasized how this subtle yet significant shift in power dynamics has the potential to undermine democratic values and global stability.


  • Can lessons from the ongoing silent conflict in the South China Sea be applied to the evolving situation in Latin America? Read about SCS


What is China’s Influence?


General Pettus identified four key sectors where China wields significant influence in Latin America today: Information Infrastructure, Lines of Communication, Energy, and Supply Chain. Together, these areas suggest a growing Chinese presence in the Western Hemisphere, with far-reaching implications for the balance of economic power.


Information Infrastructure:


Chinese companies are installing advanced 2G, 4G, and 5G networks throughout Latin America. While these companies operate as private entities, their networks often fail to meet international infrastructure security standards, rendering them potentially insecure. Under Chinese law, these private companies are obligated to provide information to the Chinese government upon request. This means sensitive data like emails, bank account information, and web searches could be subject to government monitoring, exploitation, or abuse.


Lines of Communication


General Pettus discussed the growing presence of Chinese-operated ports around the Panama Canal and other key waterways. He emphasized that while this might not seem problematic at first, these ports could eventually become strategic points of influence. To illustrate the potential risks, he noted that if a port can accommodate cargo ships and cruise ships, it could also be capable of hosting military vessels. This raises concerns about China's growing control over critical maritime trade routes, underscoring the importance of monitoring the strategic implications of these developments.


Energy


Chinese companies currently control 57% of all power distribution in Chile and 100% in Lima, the capital of Peru. If China decides to leverage this influence for military purposes, it has the leverage to do so. Additionally, China can use strategic corruption to advance its agenda, exploiting the existing problem of bribery in Latin America, particularly at the local level. This creates an opportunity for China to influence local officials to ensure their plans are implemented.


Supply Chain

China's growing influence in Latin America has implications for the supply chain, especially considering that 60% of the world's lithium is located in the region. This raises the concern that China could attempt to vertically monopolize the lithium market. General Pettus warns that China's seemingly legitimate interest in securing resources to support its economy could evolve into a monopolization of mining operations, granting them exclusive rights to critical minerals. 


  • If China weaponizes these 4 components, how quickly can economic balance be disrupted?


  • Which of these 4 areas pose the greatest risk and should require closer monitoring?


How Does the US Stay Proactive?


General Pettus emphasized that the most critical step for the US to mitigate China's growing influence in Latin America is to focus on building and reinforcing trust with Latin American countries. He pointed out that one key approach to strengthening trust involves fostering strong military-to-military relationships.


He suggested that strengthening day-to-day interactions, sharing intelligence, and highlighting risks in Chinese hardware and software seen in other parts of the world could reinforce these relationships. However, General Pettus stressed the need to recognize the U.S.'s imperfect history with Latin America, particularly in places like Venezuela, by working with other international partners to present a united front against Chinese influence.


  • How can the US compete with China's unsecured networks in Latin America, especially when China is willing to operate at a loss—something the US would never consider?


  • Which Latin American countries present the greatest potential for significant Chinese influence? What roles do they play on the world stage?


  • Which international partners should the US work with to present a more compelling case against Chinese influence?









Sources:


Major General Pettus’ Speech at the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations Event on May 3, 2024.



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