In February, on a visit to China, Argentine President Christina Fernández de Kirchner announced that her government intended to purchase almost $1 billion in Chinese weapon systems. The shopping spree was not an isolated incident. Chinese arms companies, such as the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), China National Electronics Import & Export Corp (CEIEC) and China’s North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) have expanded their position in Latin America and the Caribbean arms markets.
Should the U.S. be worried? And if so, what can it do?
Argentina’s new, promised Chinese military goods are more advanced than many of the growing number of arms that the Chinese have been selling to the region. While there is some doubt whether the Argentine commitments will ever be realized (in large part because of a likely change in government after the October elections), the list of goods and services that President Fernández de Kirchner pledged to buy includes 110 VN-1 8×8 armored personnel carriers, five 1,800-ton P-18A Malvinas-class ocean patrol vessels, and 14 Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) FC-1/JF-17 Thunder multi-role fighters.
Unfortunately, China’s sale of increasingly diverse and sophisticated products in the Latin American/Caribbean market has largely been overlooked by senior U.S. policymakers, who instead have focused on China’s commercial trade and investment activities in the region. Yet, paralleling their counterparts in sectors such as textiles, toys and footwear, Chinese military suppliers in the region have moved far beyond their one-time role of selling low-end goods, such as military clothing and small arms. In the past decade, Chinese arms companies have expanded relationships with armed forces in the region through institutional visits, defense technology cooperation agreements, professional military education and training exchanges, humanitarian and other exercises, and donations of vehicles and equipment.
It was arguably Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chávez who gave Chinese military suppliers their greatest opportunity to break into the market for major weapon systems in the Americas. Between 2005 and 2013, the Venezuelan president purchased JYL-1 radars, K-8WB fighter/trainers, and VN-4 4×4 armored personnel carriers. Chinese companies subsequently sold K-8 aircraft and H425 helicopters to Bolivia, as well as CETC radars to Ecuador (although the latter transaction ended after a legal dispute and the Ecuadorian government terminated the contract).
As Chinese companies expanded their sales to Venezuela to include more sophisticated systems, such as the Shaanxi Y-8 medium transport and Harbin Z-9C anti-submarine helicopters, they also began landing contracts in Latin America beyond the ALBA countries. China has sold Shaanxi, Dong Feng and Beiben military trucks to Peru, and may win contracts to supply components for Brazil’s SISGAAZ coastal defense system.
Chinese companies are also selling an ever broader array of end items—such as weapons platforms and sophisticated equipment—in the region. The purchase of VN-1s announced by Argentina, for example, is China’s first major sale of armored vehicles in the region outside Venezuela.
Similarly, the sale of P-18 OPV’s to Argentina builds on a 2014 commitment by Trinidad and Tobago to purchase a Chinese offshore patrol vessel (OPV) and subsequent interest by the Uruguayan navy as well.
To some degree, Chinese weapons are capturing market share from Russian systems in states that have traditionally been anti-U.S. as well as in other parts of the region. Indeed, the electronics in some Chinese systems and the quality of Chinese support in maintenance and spare parts is now considered better than that of comparable Russian systems.
Chinese companies are also offering increasingly sophisticated incentives to capture markets, such as opportunities for local production, technology sharing, and other “offsets,” as they did in the FC-1 fighter deal in Argentina.
From the perspective of Latin America and Caribbean governments, the increasing breadth and quality of weapons offered to the region by Chinese companies is not necessarily a bad thing. To the extent that such products are less expensive than their competitors, financed on generous terms through Chinese institutions, and sold through fair, open, and transparent procurement processes, they may help governments address real security problems, including the scourge of violence, insecurity, and transnational organized crime.
But transparency is rarely part of the deal, both opening the door for corruption and decreasing the likelihood that the system procured will be the best fit for the needs of the country.
Moreover, for the U.S., expanding Chinese arms sales to the region present a long-range security threat, insofar as they sustain the Chinese defense industrial base and help the Chinese improve the quality and capabilities of weapons—weapons that U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen could someday face in another theater.
Such sales also multiply opportunities for China to strengthen its military-to-military relationships with the region through the training of Latin American personnel on the Chinese systems, as well as creating a possible demand for an in-region People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military training and maintenance presence in the future, as well as opportunities to build upon equipment-based interactions to expand military-to-military relationships in other areas such as military education, exercises and security cooperation in support of Chinese commercial activities in the region. Each of these expanding interactions chips away at the position of the U.S. as the security partner of choice in the region.
The United States should not, and probably cannot, block Latin American and Caribbean governments from purchasing weapons from the People’s Republic of China, but it can make its own foreign military sales and financing systems more agile and responsive to the needs of U.S. partners in the region. It can also expand its funding for joint exercises and cooperation. Last, the U.S. can work to facilitate the activities of those extra-hemispheric actors whose objectives in the region are more consistent with those of the U.S., including the EU, Australia, Canada, South Korea and possibly Japan.
China’s sale of weapons to Argentina may seem to pale in comparison to more pressing foreign policy challenges that the U.S. faces in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, yet it is a challenge that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore while it is still manageable.
Note: The views expressed in this article are strictly his own. Dr. Ellis would like to thank defense systems expert Inigo Guevara for his review of and inputs into this work.