US seeks closer Brazil ties as China extends influence

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis (right) and Brazilian Defence Minister Joaquim Silva y Luna leaving after a meeting at the Defence Ministry in Brazil on Monday. Mr Mattis is on a tour of Latin America.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis (right) and Brazilian Defence Minister Joaquim Silva y Luna leaving after a meeting at the Defence Ministry in Brazil on Monday. Mr Mattis is on a tour of Latin America.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

RIO DE JANEIRO • United States Defence Secretary James Mattis has urged closer strategic ties with Brazil in what appeared to be part of a concerted pushback against growing Chinese influence in Latin America.

Mr Mattis, who is starting a tour of the region, told military officers at Rio de Janeiro's war college on Tuesday that Brazil and the US had interests built on shared geography, democracy and battlefield history dating to World War II.

Mr Mattis said the US wants a "stronger relationship", with a focus on using Brazil's Alcantara space centre, whose location near the Equator makes launches more effective.

China is developing its space infrastructure in Latin America, with a base in southern Argentina's Patagonia region. It has also pushed deep into the continent's economies as an investor and major client for agricultural, mineral and other commodities.

Mr Mattis said that US interest in Alcantara was "not because it lies along the Equator, a happy accident of geography, but because we want to work with Brazilians - our hemispheric neighbours whose values we share politically, as well as your technological orientation".

"Others cannot credibly say the same," he said in what appeared to be a pointed reference to China.

CATCHING UP

He's going to South America now simply to raise the United States' defence profile in a region that hasn't had a visit from a defence secretary since 2014.

MR ADAM ISACSON, director for defence oversight at the research organisation Washington Office on Latin America, on United States Defence Secretary James Mattis' visits to South America.

China's regional rise comes after long decades of deep, sometimes controversial US influence in Latin America. Mr Mattis, due to visit Argentina, Chile and Colombia next, made clear that Washington is in no mood to give way.

"We see Latin America as our neighbour. Some people say we don't pay much attention to it. That is certainly not the case in the military," Mr Mattis said in separate comments issued by the Pentagon's press office.

Mr Adam Isacson, director for defence oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research organisation, told the Agence France-Presse that Mr Mattis is trying to make up for lost time.

"He's going to South America now simply to raise the United States' defence profile in a region that hasn't had a visit from a defence secretary since 2014," Mr Isacson said.

"The Pentagon probably feels a need to raise the US profile amid concerns about increasing Russian and Chinese influence on the continent."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2018, with the headline 'US seeks closer Brazil ties as China extends influence'. Print Edition | Subscribe