Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has cautioned South American allies against Chinese aggression, slamming what he called China’s “predatory economics” and its militarization of increasingly important areas in both sea and space.
Speaking to a group of military students in Rio de Janeiro, Mattis called for partnering with Brazilians to defend American assets in space, adding that steps toward building a U.S. Space Force were reactionary based on Chinese and Russian attack capabilities.
He provided the example of when China used a missile to destroy one of its satellites in space in 2007.
“We understand the message China was sending, that they could take out a satellite in space,” Mattis told the group. “We don’t intend to militarize space. However, we will defend ourselves in space, if necessary.”
U.S. satellites are used for communications, weather forecasting and GPS. They also bring in trillions of dollars of economic output, according to Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
China has shown growing interest in boosting Latin American space efforts, even financing and operating a space center in Argentina.
American space firms are enthusiastic about the possibility of launching satellites out of Brazil's new space center in the city of Alcântara, on the country's northern Atlantic coast.
South China Sea
Mattis also criticized China’s placement of weapons and other defense assets in the disputed South China Sea, home to one of the world’s most important trade routes.
“China is shredding the trust of the nations in the area by its muscular militarization,” Mattis said.
Earlier this year, the defense secretary disinvited China from biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises involving more than 20 countries. He said he came to that decision after China acted contrary to what their president had publicly promised by moving weapons into the Spratly islands.
“There is no need for militarization of those islands,” he said. “China benefited in its economic rise from the freedom of navigation that all nations large and small enjoy, so we want to return it to that status.”
Experts say the Chinese have increased their interest in South America mostly for commercial reasons. However, Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council, told VOA that Beijing has also been trying to develop greater defense cooperation in order “to ensure the security of getting products to market.”
Mattis cautioned against Chinese deals in the Americas, citing last December when Sri Lanka had to handover a port to Beijing for 99 years, after failing to make its payments on loans from China.
“The respect for each other comes first,” Mattis said. “You can’t use predatory economics and pile massive debt on a country and then remove its sovereignty over its port like in Sri Lanka.”
The Pentagon says U.S. military equipment sales across the globe are up $5 billion compared to last year. Officials hope competition from China won't affect future U.S. sales to Latin America.