The commander of the U.S. Southern Command says countries in Latin America are increasingly turning to China for military training because of a U.S. law that has forced a reduction in a previously robust American training program. General Bantz Craddock made the comment at a U.S. Senate committee hearing Tuesday, where several senators expressed concern about the situation and called for the law to be changed. The general also expressed concern about what he called the 'destabilizing' influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the region.
General Craddock says the problem has been caused by a U.S. law that prohibits sending military trainers into countries that are part of the new International Criminal Court. Under the court's rules, the American military personnel could be subject to charges and trials for any alleged wrongdoing, and would not have diplomatic protection or other immunity. The U.S. law requires such countries to sign agreements with the United States promising not to use the court against the American military trainers.
Some countries have signed such agreements, but General Craddock, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, says 11 countries in Latin America have not, hurting efforts to build relations with those countries. He says many of them are finding China to be an attractive alternative. The general was asked to characterize China's military involvement in training Latin American militaries.
"Widespread and growing every day," said General Craddock. "We see more and more that military commanders, officers, non-commissioned officers are going to China for education and training. We see more and more Chinese non-lethal equipment showing up in the region, more representation, more Chinese military. So it is a growing phenomenon."
General Craddock reported that in 2003, the year before the law went into effect, the United States provided training to 771 soldiers from the countries that are now barred from participating in the training program.
U.S. officials say such training is vitally important to building relationships with foreign military leaders and instilling respect for civilian authority. They say such relationships also help provide a basis for military sales, and that China is being awarded more and more such contracts in Latin America.
The U.S. law that is restricting military training in Latin America is having the same effect in Africa and elsewhere.
On Tuesday, General Craddock also expressed concern about the influence of Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez, and what he called an expanding 'extremist populist movement,' on the many Latin American countries that have elections scheduled this year. He expressed particular concern about Peru and Nicaragua.
"Our look at the region tells us that these elections are going to be pivotal in many cases, and that there will be potentially many external influences on the electorates, the constituents, the voting public in many of the countries," he said. "Where there are unstabilizing, destabilizing, chaotic external influences, it becomes all the more difficult to realize the benefits of democracy."
The general said 'poverty, corruption and inequality contribute to an increased dissatisfaction with democracy and free market reforms,' creating an opening for leaders like President Chavez to promote anti-U.S. sentiment.
At the hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, several influential senators expressed concern about the reduction of U.S. influence because of the restriction on military training, and said they want to see the three-year-old law changed.
Democratic Party Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called for the repeal of the restrictions.
"I think we are neglecting our neighbors to the south in a way that is going to be very difficult to repair unless we begin moving immediately," said Senator Clinton.
Senator Clinton also expressed concern that China is using increased military ties to build broader relationships with Latin American countries, including long-term contracts for the purchase of natural resources.
Republican Senator John McCain called for the repeal of the law as part of a special budget supplement for the Department of Defense, that will be voted on soon.
Senators Clinton and McCain are expected to be leading contenders for their parties' presidential nominations in 2008.
The Armed Services Committee chairman, Republican Senator John Warner, said he plans to pursue the possibility of changing the law to enable the resumption of the formerly extensive U.S. military training program for Latin America and other regions.