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Published Sunday, April 15, 2001

China exerting regional influence

Analysts warn of political, strategic challenges to U.S. in Latin America BY JANE BUSSEY AND GLENN GARVIN


VISIT: Chinese President Jiang Zemin, with Chilean leader Ricardo Lagos, was in Latin America to cement military and trade ties. China has strong trade presence in Latin America Graphic: China's growing regional presence U.S. crew returns to a heroes' welcome

Quietly but persistently, in dozens of locations from Chile to Cuba, China is flexing its muscles in the early stages of what many military and intelligence analysts say is a plan to challenge the United States politically and strategically in its own backyard.

While Americans were preoccupied with the Chinese government's detention of a U.S. air crew half a world away, Chinese President Jiang Zemin last week launched a 12-day tour of Latin America to cement military and trade ties.

``The strategic equation in our own hemisphere is changing like a cancer that you can't feel,'' says Al Santoli, senior foreign policy advisor for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican.

Across the region, China is making its mark:

At tracking stations in Brazil, Chinese technicians familiarize themselves with new digital reconnaissance equipment that might someday enable them to stalk and destroy U.S. intelligence satellites.

In computerized listening posts in Cuba, Chinese experts in electronic espionage scoop up signals from U.S. military satellites and sift through the contents of millions of American telephone conversations for intelligence.

At airfields in Venezuela, Chinese military officers instruct pilots in the fine points of new transport planes that the government of President Hugo Chávez has purchased from Beijing. From this toehold, China hopes to expand military sales -- eventually including jet fighters -- throughout South America.

From petroleum sites in Venezuela, where Chinese oil executives are drilling exploratory wells, to ports along the Chilean coast, where nearly $1 billion in copper was loaded for shipping to China in 2000, investment and trade ties surge. China's trade with Latin America jumped more than 50 percent from 1999 to 2000, reaching a historic high of $12.6 billion. Because China's initiative in the Western Hemisphere has involved tiny nibbles rather than a single bold thrust, it has attracted little public attention. But that doesn't make it any less real, analysts warn.

The notion of global rivalries might seem faintly anachronistic to many Americans -- a relic of Cold War thinking. In the 1990s, with former President Bill Clinton labeling the Chinese our ``strategic partners,'' U.S. investment in China surged and the country became a major trading partner.


But Beijing doesn't see it that way, China watchers warn. ``Don't be romantic about China,'' says James Lilly, a former U.S. ambassador to Beijing. ``They aren't romantic about us. You have to seek truth from facts, and the facts are that they run massive intelligence operations against us, they make open statements against us, their high-level documents show that they are not friendly to us. They consider us enemies.''

A Chinese military ``White Paper,'' published at the end of last year, described U.S. policy as ``hegemonism and power politics,'' and Beijing recently announced a 17 percent boost in military spending.

Jiang dismisses concerns that deepening Sino-Latin American ties are aimed at challenging Washington's dominance.

In Brasilia Wednesday, he called a partnership with the largest Latin American country ``a new type of state relations based on mutual respect, equality and reciprocity,'' adding that the relationship is ``not directed against any third party,'' a pointed reference to the United States.


But Chinese activities in the Western Hemisphere, though more subtle, may eventually pose a more serious challenge to Washington, the analysts say.

``I'm not going to tell you that they're going to put missiles in Panama and threaten Miami,'' says William Triplett II, co-author of Red Dragon Rising: Communist China's Military Threat to America. ``This is a much more long-term thing we're talking about.''

Jiang, during his 12-day tour of Latin America, which ends Tuesday, has been explicit about his country's intent to challenge U.S. leadership in the region. During his trip through Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela, he repeatedly attacked what he called Washington's attempt to impose a ``uni-polar'' scheme on the globe.

Instead, Jiang offered China's vision of a new world order. ``Multipolarization,'' Jiang said in Chile and repeated throughout his trip, ``[is] conducive to the establishment of a new international political and economic order, world peace and stability.'' The other poles of influence could be Europe, China and Japan.

As part of its expanding ties with the region, China has been slowly but surely increasing its contacts with militaries throughout South America. Beijing has established direct military-to-military relations in Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Not only have the contacts enhanced China's influence, but there's been a direct intelligence payoff. The Chinese ``are also able to gain valuable insight into the American military, because so many of these Latin officers have been trained in the United States,'' says Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank that follows China closely.

The best receptions for Chinese military overtures have been in Cuba -- still seeking a replacement for its old Soviet patrons -- and Venezuela, where the populist ex-paratrooper president, Hugo Chávez, pursues a relentlessly anti-American policy.

Cuba is permitting Beijing to set up an electronic espionage shop near the old Soviet listening post at Lourdes, where the Chinese can pilfer intelligence from U.S. telecommunications, including the signals from American military satellites.

Venezuela has even purchased military aircraft from China. The Venezuelans have already purchased several small transport planes, and Chávez himself last month witnessed the tryout of two new training models of warplanes.

``That's a foot in the door,'' says Fisher. ``Then maybe you buy some trainers from them, and once you have the trainers, you might as well buy the aircraft, too.'' Many analysts believe that the Chinese hope to eventually sell their J-10 fighter-bomber, similar to the American F-16, in Latin America.

Even more intriguing is Chinese involvement in a space project in Brazil that has already contributed to Beijing's ambitious military satellite program.

When the United States shied away from helping Brazil's space program out of fears that the country might be developing a nuclear capacity, China jumped in. The Chinese supplied rocket-launching technology that Brazil lacked; Brazil offered real-time digital photo technology that was new to the Chinese.

The fruit of their collaboration, the China-Brazil Earth Resource Satellite, or CIBERS-1, seems innocent enough. Launched in October 1999, it monitors environmental factors like vegetation and temperature. With a resolution of 20 meters -- that is, it cannot really see anything smaller than 20 meters -- CIBERS-1 is useless for military purposes.


But within a year, China had launched a military satellite closely modeled on CIBERS-1. The military satellite is believed capable of spotting objects as small as five meters, and intelligence experts say the Chinese are continuing to improve the optical technology all the time.

Now China has announced plans to launch a constellation of eight reconnaissance satellites, half of them equipped with conventional photographic capabilities, half with radar-imaging technology capable of seeing through cloud covers.

That array of satellites would allow the Chinese to look at any spot on the earth twice a day, greatly enhancing its military capabilities.

Meanwhile, China continues its joint space project with Brazil. It may eventually lead to the Chinese having permanent access to Brazilian satellite tracking facilities -- a major step toward Beijing developing a killer satellite that could shoot down American satellites.

``In order to shoot down an enemy satellite, you have to have a comprehensive picture of its long-term flight path,'' says Fisher. ``Access to Brazilian tracking facilities would enable them to do this with U.S. satellites.''

These are the type of military links that also bind. Add to them growing trade, investment and economic exchanges that also build China's influence and pressure points in a region anxious for increased global economic ties and respect on the world stage.

Not all China analysts believe Beijing's activities in the Western hemisphere are a matter for serious concern.


``There is a Chinese presence here, to be sure, but these fears are horrendously overblown,'' scoffs William Ratliff, a scholar at the conservative Hoover Institution who follows China and Latin America. ``I don't have the slightest doubt that China is going to be the most powerful nation in Asia within the next 10 to 15 years, and it behooves us to recognize that and act accordingly, so we'll have good relations with them as they grow.''

Others, though, believe that analysis is naive. ``These things are really all coordinated to build a Chinese political-military presence,'' Fisher said. ``[So] that these countries are made aware that they don't have to live in the shadow of the United States, that there is another superpower on the horizon with which they can pursue a strategic relationship.''

-- Martin Thompson (, April 15, 2001

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