Chinese activities in South America represent a "relentless march" to replace the primary influence the U.S. has over the continent, according to Army Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of the U.S. Southern Command responsible for armed forces activities in South America. (Related: Global military spending hits record-high $2.24 trillion amid ongoing conflict in Ukraine, heightened tension in Taiwan.)
Between 2009 and 2019, the Chinese Communist Party transferred more than $615 million worth of military assets to just five South American nations: Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. These military assets include small arms, ground vehicles, air defense radars and aircraft.
China is also strengthening military ties and increasing its military presence in the region. Cuba regularly hosts the People's Liberation Army, China's armed forces, for port visits. Chinese peacekeepers also regularly participate in peacekeeping operations in Haiti.
The communist nation regularly conducts military training exercises and provides supplies to local law enforcement in the region as well. For example, China provided the police departments of socialist Bolivia with military vehicles and anti-riot gear. China donated patrol and logistics vehicles to the police forces of Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. More recently, on Feb. 10, China presented Panama's security forces with thousands of tactical helmets and bulletproof vests.
"This is a risk we can't accept or ignore," said Richardson.
China has also used its growing influence in Latin America to pressure five nations to sever their diplomatic ties with Taiwan. These are Panama (2017), El Salvador (2018), the Dominican Republic (2018), Nicaragua (2021) and, just this year, Honduras.
Experts warn that the remaining holdouts in the region are facing increased pressure to establish full diplomatic ties with the communist mainland. These holdouts are Belize and Guatemala in Central America; Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean; and Paraguay in South America.
In 2000, China accounted for less than two percent of exports to Latin America. Within eight years, the communist nation's trade with the region grew at an average annual rate of 31 percent. By 2021, Chinese trade to Latin America totaled $450 billion, and China is currently the top trading partner for South America and the second-largest for Latin America as a whole, right behind the United States.
China has also been flooding Latin America with overseas foreign direct investments and loans. Between 2005 and 2020, Chinese state-owned banks together loaned some $137 billion to Latin American governments in exchange for lucrative projects and products like oil and contracts for energy and infrastructure projects. In 2020 alone, China provided Latin America with over $17 billion in investments and loans, mostly going to South America.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck warned that these investments and loans are leading to China obtaining more and more control over critical infrastructure in the region. China already owns more than 80 percent of Mexico's telecommunications infrastructure. Other nations with massive Chinese debts, like Venezuela, could be forced to hand over their own critical infrastructure, such as their energy grids.
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Watch this clip from Newsmax as news anchors Lidia Curanaj and Michael Grimm discuss why President Joe Biden isn't worried about China's growing threat.