Defense One reports that China has begun aggressively pursuing its own version of the U.S. military’s outreach program to military officers in Latin America by funding expensive programs to educate them at Chinese military academies.
“They are very lavishly funding to bring senior military officers from a variety of key countries around our region to China for very lavishly expensed, all-expense-paid trips for them, for their families to be able to live very high lifestyles in the country,” U.S. Southern Command chief Admiral Kurt Tidd told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Tidd compared the Chinese program to the U.S. State Department’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, which dates back to the 1970s. The Senate Armed Services Committee aired concerns that the program, which is seen as highly successful at reinforcing American partnerships in regions like Latin America and Africa, could be negatively impacted by proposed State Department budget cuts.
Tidd said China has watched IMET “very closely” and “basically have taken a leaf out of our book” by adding their own version of the military education program as part of their effort to build influence in Latin America, which also includes massive infrastructure spending as part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Russia, Iran, and even North Korea are likewise seeing to expand influence in the region, a prospect troubling enough to prompt Admiral Tidd to ask for a “modest” investment in the Southern Command to keep America competitive in the new great power race.
“North Korea may use its small presence in Latin America to do us harm while also looking to develop expanded economic and diplomatic partnerships,” Tidd said, expanding on one of the more surprising elements of his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We remain concerned that Pyongyang could use its limited footprint in the region to collect or plot against us.”
“Given the permissive environment in the region, North Korean efforts to generate revenue, and its history of working with supporters like Cuba to circumvent sanctions, North Korea is likely to engage in some form of illicit activity in Latin America,” he anticipated.
Tidd also made the point that since South American and Caribbean nations are so different, carefully-cultivated personal relationships of the type fostered by IMET are crucial to maintaining America’s strategic relationships. In other words, there is no substitute for close relations with military officers who intimately understand the politics and culture of their home countries.
“China, Russia, and Iran are courting some of our most strategically important Latin American and Caribbean partners and supporting authoritarian, anti-American regimes,” Tidd warned. “With every inroad they make, they enlarge competitive space to interfere with our security relationships, cancel out our interoperability with the region, undermine our efforts to reinforce international norms, and hold our interests at risk.”