Dragon in the American Backyard: China’s tech forays into Latin America
Sharad Joseph Mahendar
18 May 2023
China’s technological footprint around the globe is now more than palpable, having seemingly taken a leaf out of the US’ playbook. Just as Uncle Sam has doubled down on S&T partnerships in the Far East and the Indo-Pacific, China has accelerated a series of carefully crafted engagements in Latin America, disconcertingly so for the USA.
China’s efforts to build its own technological spheres of influence around the globe has been a distinct feature of 21st Century geopolitics. Chinese technology in today’s context has practically penetrated every corner of the world, allowing Beijing to wield ample leverage in efforts to emerge as a superpower by 2035. In what appears to be another effort to challenge the USA’s technological supremacy, China has now entered the USA’s own backyard in Latin America. Keen to leap ahead in the fourth industrial revolution, major regional powers in Latin America have welcomed Beijing with open arms to set up their digital infrastructure.
China has collaborated with regional powers such as Brazil and Argentina through high technology partnerships as early as the 1980s. However, it is in the backdrop of a telecommunications revolution in the developing world in the early 2000s that China sought to craft a wider engagement in the Latin American region. Prominent Chinese telecom giants such as Huawei and ZTE were brought in to set up telecommunication infrastructure, particularly on developing mobile networks. This helped China establish a solid technological footprint in countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela. In subsequent years, technology cooperation with Latin American states has grown in areas such as telecommunications, renewable energy, Artificial Intelligence (AI), e-commerce and smart cities.
Space for diplomacy?
China has been growing its space footprint in Latin America – a major cause for concern for the United States. As a part of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has been ramping up investments in space infrastructure in a bid to expand its geopolitical and economic clout around the world. The Chinese Academy of Sciences South America Centre for Astronomy (CASSACA) was inaugurated in 2013 in the Chilean capital of Santiago. China has also signed agreements with countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador for the construction and launch of satellites for remote sensing as well as training and capacity building of space personnel.
Such emerging partnerships have the highly successful. China-Brazil cooperation in the space sector is a handy example. The China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) programme, a joint research and production arrangement, was initiated in 1988. The main objective of CBERS was to jointly launch and deploy earth observation satellites intended for urban planning, environmental monitoring as well as disaster management. Between 1999-2019, the programme has seen the launch of six remote-sensing satellites.
However, more than straightforward space diplomacy overtures in terms of the launch and development of satellites, it is China’s growing ‘physical’ footprint using the garb of space missions that has the USA fretful. China has of late built a network of satellite ground stations across the continent. While Argentina houses four of them, Brazil has one Chinese-operated ground station. Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela have two each. Satellite ground stations facilitate earth-to-space and space-to-earth communications. They can receive information from satellites and be used to relay commands to space assets to reposition or perform other manoeuvres. Ground stations can additionally be used to track space objects and improve Space Situational Awareness.
The People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is believed to have been directly involved in operating these stations. For instance, the Espacio Lejano Station, located in Argentina, is operated by the China Satellite Launch & Tracking Control General, which is a sub-entity of the PLASSF. The station, located in Argentina’s Patagonia desert houses the China-Argentina Radio Telescope (CART) with a 16-storey antenna. China claims to have employed the same to execute its historic landing on the dark side of the moon in 2019.
As per contractual stipulations, Argentina is to “not interfere or interrupt” the activities carried out at the station. In this background, fears have naturally been growing over China’s intentions behind its active space diplomacy in Latin America. Concerns are rife that China may be utilising these stations to intercept sensitive communications. Observers in the USA also speculate that these shall help China wield advantages in “information-rich battlespaces”. However, China has dismissed these allegations by claiming that the stations are used for peaceful, civilian missions.
China’s investments in space infrastructure and provision of fellowships for graduate training are generally perceived positively in Latin America. However, sceptics opine that China has been using its financial and technological muscle to gain long-term strategic goals, taking advantage of the developmental requirements of countries in the region. The Las Lajas space station in Argentina, for example, built and operated by China’s military, had no stipulations mandating against military use when the agreement was entered into in 2015. Following a change of government in Buenos Aires and reflecting domestic and international (primarily from the USA) concerns, a ‘commitment’ to utilise the station only for ‘peaceful uses’ was baked into the agreement. Argentina is still not in a position to monitor whether this commitment is truly being adhered to.
Digital silk road
Chinese companies have also made their presence felt in the Latin American digital economy for quite some time. Chinese companies, prominently Huawei, have been actively involved in setting up 5G equipment and infrastructure in several countries in the region. Huawei saw its revenue increase by 21.8 percent from its Latin American operations in 2018. Meanwhile, e-commerce platforms including Alibaba and JD.com are major competitors in Latin America’s virtual marketplace.
China is also heavily investing in AI in Latin America. China is supporting Latin American governments in developing AI applications for delivering public services such as education, health and transportation. It is also lending its expertise in Internet of Things (IoT), AI and cloud computing to assist local governments in Latin America in developing smart city solutions.
Chinese companies have also been involved in developing digital governance mechanisms in the continent. The Venezuelan government introduced the Carnet de la Patria or the Homeland Card in 2016, which was developed by ZTE. On paper, a citizen can choose to acquire the card voluntarily. However, a host of services ranging from doctors’ appointments to government pensions cannot be accessed without possessing the Homeland Card. Critics have denounced this initiative as a form of “citizen control”.
Meanwhile, countries such as Mexico and Ecuador are turning to Chinese surveillance companies such as the state-owned China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC) in order to enhance their security infrastructure. China is also organizing events such as the “Latin America safe city summit” for pushing emerging surveillance equipment into the Latin American markets.
The US based advocacy group Freedom House, has pointed out that the Governments of Venezuela and Cuba more often resort to blocking Internet access using Chinese technology, which it describes as “digital authoritarianism”. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a report “The New Big Brother: China and Digital Authoritarianism”, accused Chinese telecommunication companies of facilitating digital authoritarianism around the world, while citing Venezuela as a case study.
A cause célèbre?
China’s increasing stake in the technology industry can have widespread geopolitical implications. Critics raise concerns that the “state-led enterprise driven” model could be weaponised by China for influence campaigns or even coercion. The USA and its allies in the Five Eyes network are running a campaign to warn the countries in regions such as Latin America and Africa of the serious security risks of using Chinese technology.
However, Oliver Stuenkel, who is a Professor at the Fundacio Getulio Vargas school of International Relations, Brazil, argues that these warnings are not taken seriously by the governments and people in Latin America and are viewed as overtly political and disingenuous. Many countries in the global South view Chinese technologies as affordable, economical and quickly accessible means to digital infrastructure. While it is true that China’s increasing technological intervention in Latin America offers opportunities for economic development and innovation, there are also genuine concerns regarding data privacy, cyber security and the use of technology for stifling democracy.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Sharad Joseph Mahendar
Sharad holds an MA in Geopolitics and International Relations from DGIR, MAHE. His research interests are Latin American politics and international political economy.
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