Category Archives: South America

Analysis related to USSOUTHCOM

USNS Comfort’s Latest Humanitarian Mission Throughout Latin America

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“My plain and simple message to our friends in the region is ‘the United States is a reliable and trustworthy security partner….Latin America and the Caribbean are not our backyard. It’s our shared neighborhood… And like the neighborhood … where I grew up, good neighbors respect each other’s sovereignty, treat each other as equal partners with respect, and commit to a strong neighborhood watch.”  Vice Admiral Craig Faller, USN,  before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Sep. 25, 2018. 

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Introduction

USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has finished another deployment to the Western Hemisphere as part of the Enduring Promise initiative. The U.S. hospital ship’s latest tour took it to Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru where it provided free medical assistance to thousands of individuals in need. This is an example of medical diplomacy at work and a great initiative to improve U.S.-Latin American relations at a time when more cohesion among governments in the Western Hemisphere is needed.

Current Deployment

Comfort is a large vessel, with a length of 894 feet and a beam of 105 feet, the same as its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) – the two are converted San Clemente-class super tankers. According to the U.S. Navy, each platform “contain[s] 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants,” along with helicopter decks. Hence, the vessel is able to provide for vast numbers of patients simultaneously with different services. The vessel’s most recent tour, the sixth time that it has been deployed to the region, lasted 11 weeks.

Comfort was well-received by the local populations. For example, the vessel was in the city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, from 22-26 October. According to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense the medical staff attended between 500-750 per day, while a Southern Command press release stated that “Comfort has treated more than 4,000 patients, including nearly 2,500 medical patients, 1,100 optometry patients, 450 dental patients, and performed 81 surgeries.” An Ecuadorian ministry press release explained “The arrival of the vessel is part of the strengthening of defense relations between Ecuador and the USA.”

Comfort then traveled to Paita, in northern Peru, where it treated over 5,000 patients, according to the Peruvian government. The U.S. hospital ship also donated wheelchairs and medical supplies. The Peruvian government noted that this is the third time that Comfort has visited Peru, in 2011 it provided medical assistance to 7,352 patients, and in 2007, it aided 9,223 Peruvian citizens.

TRUJILLO, Honduras (Dec. 10, 2018) – Hospitalman Eric Trybus, from Oklahoma City, Okla., helps a patient walk to a medical station to receive treatment at one of two medical sites. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman J. Keith Wilson/Released)

The vessel’s stops in Colombia and Honduras had similarly positive results. In Colombia, the U.S. hospital ship docked in Turbo (Antioquia) and then Riohacha (La Guajira), with the local government estimating that some 7,400 patients were treated by Comfort’s medical staff. As a final point, it is worth noting that the citizens of these nations were not the only ones to receive treatment aboard Comfort. Case in point, while in Colombia medical personnel also helped Venezuelan migrants who have settled in Riohacha as they flee the political and socio-economic crisis in their homeland.

Discussion 

Enduring Promise is an example of a medical diplomacy initiative that helps promote a positive image of the U.S. In this case, the people that were helped by Comfort, along with their families and other loved ones, will likely now have a more positive view of the U.S. and its military due to the free and professional medical services they received. An indigenous person from the Wayuu ethnic community in Colombia described Comfort’s visit as a “blessing from God” as it helped vulnerable communities, peasants, and Venezuelan migrants, according to Colombia’s daily El Nacional. Even more, governments also get a load taken off their shoulders, as Comfort provided services that local medical services could not offer, or were too financially costly for families to afford. For the U.S. and its partners, this was a win-win situation.

One important fact to mention is that Comfort visited Ecuador. A few years ago, when former President Rafael Correa was in power, this trip would have been unthinkable, as the former South American leader was known for his anti-U.S. sentiments. He famously expelled the U.S. military from its base in Manta, in 2009, and he was a close ally of the late-Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Nevertheless, President Lenin Moreno has carried out a complete turnaround to Ecuador’s foreign policy by rapproaching the U.S. In recent months, the Ecuadorian Esmeraldas-class corvette BAE Los Ríos (CM 13) participated in the U.S.-sponsored UNITAS multinational exercise in Colombia, personnel from the U.S. Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School visited the South American country, and Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin has visited the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command. Comfort’s visit, thus, is the proverbial cherry on top of the cake of improving bilateral relations.

As for Honduras, the visit is likewise significant as a caravan of Central American migrants, mostly Hondurans, is attempting to enter the U.S. as they escape poverty and violence in their homeland. Comfort’s visit to the Central American state is an example of SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Navy providing humanitarian aid to Hondurans in need, irrespective of the rhetoric coming out of Washington lately. Hence, it is refreshing to read SOUTHCOM’s 25 October communique, which explains that “the embarked medical team will provide care on board and at land-based medical sites, helping to relieve pressure on national medical systems caused partly by an increase in cross-border migrants. The deployment reflects the United States’ enduring promise of friendship, partnership and solidarity with the Americas.”

China’s Peace Ark 

As a caveat to this analysis, it is necessary to mention China’s hospital ship, Peace Ark. In a previous CIMSEC commentary, “The Significance of U.S. and Chinese Hospital Ship Deployments to Latin America,” the author discussed how both Washington and Beijing utilize their hospital vessels as diplomatic tools in order to improve their image in countries that said ships visit during their humanitarian tours. As it turns out, both ships would be deployed simultaneously to the Western Hemisphere. While Comfort visited the aforementioned nations, Peace Ark visited Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Venezuela. Even more, on 15 November the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense announced that the vessel had docked in Guayaquil to provide medical assistance to as many as 3,200 patients.

While governments are free to decide which vessels from foreign powers can enter their ports, it is impossible to avoid the irony that the hospital vessels of two nations that continue to be at odds with each other, from trade wars to incidents in Asian waters, are back-to-back welcomed in the territory of third-party states. As a result, Ecuadorians living in the Esmeraldas and Guayaquil regions enjoyed free medical services from two rival powers, while Quito maintains good relations with both nations.

Final Thoughts 

Medical diplomacy is an effective way to improve bilateral ties between the U.S. and its Latin American allies. Comfort’s visit to four Latin American nations, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru will improve the U.S. image at the grassroot level, as the citizens of these nations that received free and professional medical service will know that, irrespective of the current rhetoric coming out of Washington, U.S. medical personnel are still there to help those in need.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: TRUJILLO, Honduras (Dec. 6, 2018) – The hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) is anchored off the coast of Honduras as part of an 11-week medical support mission to Central and South America as part of U.S. Southern Command’s Enduring Promise initiative. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Bigley) 

Atlantico: Brazil’s New Carrier

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” –Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

Brazil’s new helicopter carrier, PHM Atlantico (A 140), docked in Rio de Janeiro on 25 August 2018 after sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from Plymouth, United Kingdom, its former home. The vessel is the new pride and joy of the Brazilian Navy. However, apart from possessing an imposing appearance, how is this vessel useful to Brazil?

The New Ship

Atlantico was formerly known as HMS Ocean (L 12), an amphibious assault ship that belonged to the British Royal Navy. It was commissioned in 1998 and decommissioned earlier this year. The Brazilian government purchased it for 84 million British pounds. Among its characteristics the vessel displaces 21,000 tons, has a length of 203 meters, a max speed of 21 knots, and a range of up to 8,000 miles. According to the Brazilian Navy, the vessel is equipped with four 30mm DS30M Mk2 guns, two 1007 radars, one 1008 radar, and one Artisan 3D 997 radar. Atlantico transports a crew of 303 with only one female naval officer, Captain Márcia Freitas, chief of the vessel’s medical department. The ship can also transport as many as 800 marines. “It’s a new ship, in good condition. It can be operational for 20 to 30 years,” declared Brazilian Admiral Luiz Roberto Valicente to the Brazilian daily Estadao.

PHM Atlantico (Naval.com.br)

Atlantico can transport as many as 18 helicopters, but it is still unclear which type of aircraft the Brazilian Navy will deploy aboard its new vessel. On 5 September, the Brazilian aerospace company Helibras, a division of Airbus, tweeted a photo of H225M helicopters landing on the deck of Atlantico, hinting that these types of aircraft could be deployed on the new carrier. Additionally, the Estadao article declared that the carrier is compatible with all the models of helicopters currently operated by the Brazilian Navy.

It is worth noting that this is the third carrier that the Brazilian Navy has operated. Atlantico replaces the Clemencau-class carrier Sao Paulo (A 12), which was decommissioned in 2017. Previously, Brazil operated a Colossus-class aircraft carrier Minas Gerais (A 11), which was decommissioned in 2001.

Why Does Brazil Need a Carrier?

The standard explanation out of Brasilia for the purchase of the helicopter carrier is that it will help protect Brazil’s exclusive economic zone, which is rich with maritime resources such as fish and oil deposits. Moreover, in an interview with the Brazilian defense news website Defesanet, Capitan Giovani Corrêa, commander of Atlantico, explained that with the addition of the carrier, “the Navy will have a platform with dissuasive capabilities [which will help the] control of vast maritime areas…will help maintain security in the South Atlantic and…will protect Brazil at the international level.”

The statement about “dissuasive capabilities” raises the question of which nation could possibly attack Brazil in the first place. The country last fought an inter-state war when it deployed an expeditionary force to Europe to fight alongside the Allies during World War II. Even more, when it comes to conflicts with neighboring states, the last war that Brazil participated in was the Acre War (1899-1903) with Bolivia.

United States Marines from Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/8, ride a lift into the vast hangar bay of the British amphibious assault ship HMS OCEAN (L12), during NORTHERN APPROACH, a NATO exercise in 1999. (Photo by CPL Jimmie Perkins, USMC)

Additionally, it is important to mention that Latin American geopolitics are fairly stable these days (the situation in Venezuela notwithstanding), which means that the rest of the region does not view Brazil’s recent acquisition, or its similarly ambitious submarine and corvette programs, with concern. In other words, there have been no apparent moves by regional navies to upgrade their own defenses in response to the acquisition of Atlantico. Latin America is not experiencing an arms race these days and Brasilia’s relations with its neighbors are fairly cordial, which effectively rules out the hypothesis of a regional state attempting to obtain control of Brazilian waters by force.

Thus, apart from patrolling Brazil’s territorial waters looking for non-traditional threats (such as illegal fishing, drug trafficking, or piracy), what other duties will Atlantico perform? In the aforementioned interview, Captain Corrêa suggested the carrier could be used to support humanitarian operations and as a command and control center for a task force. This raises the hypothesis that the ship could be deployed to United Nations peacekeeping operations. One likely candidate is the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, which has a naval component, the Maritime Task Force. Brazil regularly deploys a vessel to this naval force – the current ship there is the frigate Liberal (F 43). Hence, Atlantico could similarly be deployed to the Mediterranean to serve as a command center, should the task force attempt to carry out a major operation there.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Brasilia, Atlantico will give the Brazilian Navy true blue water capability. That was the main purpose of the previous carrier, Sao Paulo, but the vessel spent more time docked and undergoing repairs than at sea, so hopefully for Brazil, Atlantico will perform much better.

Final Thoughts

The acquisition of the helicopter carrier Atlantico, alongside the PROSUB submarine program and the Tamandare corvette program, are examples of the Brazilian Navy aiming to become a true blue water navy in the 21st century. Domestically speaking, Brazil has little to fear about a conflict with a neighboring state, but Atlantico, should it perform better than its predecessor Sao Paulo, will be of great help to project the image of the marinha do Brasil well past the South Atlantic.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: PHM Atlantico entering her home port of Rio do Janeiro (Merco Press)

Tradewinds 2018 and the Caribbean’s Maritime Security Challenges

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The first two phases of the multinational, Caribbean-focused military exercise Tradewinds 2018 took place between 4-21 June. Said maneuvers, sponsored by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), brought together an estimated 1,700 troops from almost two dozen nations. Given the ongoing maritime security challenges that the Greater Caribbean continues to face, these confidence and interoperability-building exercises continue to be very important.

Tradewinds ‘18

The first two phases of Tradewinds 2018 took place in Saint Kitts and Nevis and then in The Bahamas. Phase III, a seminar among regional leaders to discuss the results of the first two phases, occured from 17-19 July in Miami, Florida. The participating nations included the majority of Caribbean states, in addition to Canada, Mexico, the U.S. and extra-hemispheric states like France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Some of the platforms that were deployed include the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr. (WPC-1107); the British RFA Mounts Bay (L3008), a Bay-class auxiliary landing ship dock; Canada’s HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704), a Kingston-class coastal defense vessel; and Mexico’s ARM Oaxaca (PO 161), an Oaxaca-class patrol vessel. As for aerial platforms, these included AS365N3 Panther and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. As SOUTHCOM explains “this year’s focus is on countering transnational organized crime in the region,” apart from other priorities like improving disaster response. Operations at sea including procedures to intercept a non-compliant vessel, and live firing exercises with deck-mounted weapon systems like .50 caliber machine guns and 25 mm cannon.

In general, Caribbean governments and security forces have generally had a positive attitude toward these maneuvers. For example, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis and Minister of National Security the Honourable Dr. Timothy Harris reportedly stated “I have been assured that we can therefore expect training components or injects that reflect real world scenarios so that in the face of a real threat, our security forces and emergency response personnel will be able to coordinate seamlessly and in a manner and time that both meet international standards.” Similarly, Christian J. Ehrlich, an external analyst at the Strategic Research Institute of the Mexican Navy (Instituto de Investigaciones Estratégicas de la Armada de México), explained to the author that Tradewinds will help improve  interoperability between regional navies and coast guards.

Caribbean Threats

The Caribbean’s maritime security challenges are very diverse. They include drug trafficking (Washington’s primary concern), weapons and human trafficking, illegal fishing, not to mention search and rescue operations. These crimes have been extensively recorded, but it is worth noting that some occurred, somewhat ironically, at the same time that Tradewinds was taking place. For example, in mid-June Her Majesty’s Bahamian Ship (HMBS) Durward Knowles, a patrol vessel, intercepted a 50-ft Dominican fishing vessel that was poaching in Bahamian waters. Around the same time, the Dominican Republic chased a speedboat until it stopped in the coast of Pedernales province. Aboard were 351 packets which apparently contained cocaine. A month earlier, in early May, it was the Jamaican Defense Force’s turn to catch a vessel at sea, as a ship reportedly intercepted off the coast of Westmoreland had 764.9 pounds of compressed marijuana.”

Even more, piracy is becoming a noteworthy problem: in 2017 the organization Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) “recorded 71 incidents in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most incidents in the region occurred in territorial waters, with anchored yachts being the primary targets for attackers.” There were also 16 attacks against tankers and three fishing vessels, among other types of ships. A map prepared by OBP shows a cluster of incidents off the coast of Belize, Colombia, Venezuela as well around the islands of Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Map of 2017 incidents by Oceans Beyond Piracy.

Not counted in the report was a late-April 2018 incident along the Guyanese-Surinamese border, where pirates attacked a group of four fishing boats, robbing the crew and killing several of them.

The Status of Caribbean Maritime Forces

Some Caribbean defense forces have attempted to upgrade and expand their maritime fleets in order to take better control of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). For example, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) has cquired several vessels constructed by Damen Shipyard  via the Sandy Bottom Project. These include Damen Stan 3007 and Stan Patrol 4207 patrol vessels as well as one Stan Lander 5612 auxiliary transport, roll on-roll off vessel. Similarly in 2016 the Jamaican Defense Force (JDF)  upgraded its fleet by receiving two new Stan Patrol 4207 from Damen in 2017. That same year, the JDF received two 38-foot SAFE boats and two 37-foot Boston Whaler vessels, donated by the U.S. More recently, in late July 2018, the Barbados Coast Guard commissioned patrol boat Endurance, a 958Y inshore vessel donated by China earlier this year.  The ambitious Sandy Bottom Project notwithstanding, Caribbean defense forces in general have limited defense budgets, hence new platforms, aerial or maritime, are not acquired or modernized regularly. Moreover, the aforementioned examples also highlight the continuous reliance on extra-regional allies  for donations in order to expand the naval inventory of these defense forces.

Mr. Ehrlich mentions that greater regional cooperation and interoperability is needed in order to make up for a limited number of platforms and personnel, and in order to decrease the region’s dependence on SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Mexican Navy could step up its presence in the Caribbean to help its partners with maritime security, but unfortunately the Mexican Navy seems to be more focused on its Pacific territory.

As a final point, it is important to highlight the troubling scandals regarding regional defense officers that are caught in cahoots with criminals. For example, Colonel Rafael Collado Ureña of the Dominican Republic’s Army, was arrested in mid-2017 in Puerto Rico as he was about to carry out a sale of 12.9 kilograms of cocaine. Around the same time, a member of the Jamaican Defense Force was arrested at Kingston airport as he tried to board a flight to Toronto with 2.8 kilograms of cocaine

Final Thoughts

Exercise Tradewinds 2018 recently concluded, and hopefully the maneuvers and training exercises that Caribbean forces carried out with counterparts such as those from Canada, Mexico, the UK, and the U.S, will be helpful for their future patrol and interdiction operations in their respective EEZs. We can also hope that these ongoing exercises, as well as generally cordial regional diplomatic, trade and defense relations, will lead to greater interoperability between regional forces.

While Tradewinds 2018 can be regarded as a success, these maneuvers will have limited positive impact if Caribbean defense forces do not obtain additional funding for new aerial and naval platforms given the size of the Caribbean Sea. Even more, scandals among security personnel, namely their involvement in criminal activities, stain the reputation of regional defense forces and limit the success of any training operations.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 16, 2018) British ship RFA Mounts Bay (l3008) leads United States Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr (WPC-1107) (center, rear), Mexican Navy ship ARM Oaxaca (PO 161) (center, front), and Canadian Ship HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704) (right), during a formation exercise in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of the Bahamas during the U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercise, Tradewinds 18. (Royal Canadian Navy Photo by Able Seaman John Iglesias/Released)

Taiwanese Navy Friendship Flotilla Visits Latin American and Caribbean Allies

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

A three-ship training flotilla belonging to the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan visited Central American and Caribbean states as Taipei strives to maintain close ties with regional allies. Taiwan regularly sends high-ranking defense officials and flotillas as part of goodwill initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, these initiatives will be even more important as the Dominican Republic announced at the end of April that it would sever relations with Taiwan and establish them with the People’s Republic of China.

 Friendship Flotilla 2018

Taiwan’s friendship flotilla No. 107 (Flotilla de la Amistad in Spanish), is comprised of “Pan Shi, a modern and sleek Fast Combat Support Ship, Pan Chao, an older, U.S.-designed frigate, and Kuen Wing, a more recent, French-made stealth frigate,” according to AFP. There are around 800 personnel on board in total, including an unspecified number of cadets from the ROC Naval Academy who are utilizing the voyage to learn how to operate in the high seas.

The flotilla commenced its training voyage by first visiting the Marshall Islands; while in the Western Hemisphere it visited the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The local and Taiwanese media have covered the visit during each port call. For example, the  Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario has noted that the last time a Taiwanese flotilla visited the Central American country was in 2016 while other outlets mentioned that this is the sixth time that such a visit has occurred.

Meanwhile the Minister of Defense of El Salvador, Munguía Payés, reportedly praised bilateral relations, stating that “the armed forces of El Salvador and of Taiwan are and will always be an important factor not only when it comes to the internal security of our respective nations but also supporters of development and guarantors of democracy.”

Taiwan, China, and Latin America

Even with recent advances in naval technology and the ability to resupply at sea, it is still necessary for vessels traveling far from their nation’s territorial waters to be allowed to dock at friendly ports and conduct exercises with friendly naval forces from other nations. The problem is that Taiwan is running out of ports in the Western Hemisphere to dock its naval platforms and engage in constructive naval initiatives with friendly forces as regional governments switch from recognizing Taipei to Beijing. As previously mentioned the DR switched at the end of April, Panama switched in 2017, while Costa Rica did the same a decade ago, in 2007. The DR’s switch is somewhat embarrassing to Taipei, as the flotilla docked in Santo Domingo in mid-April, only to have the Dominican government switch to Beijing two weeks later.

While Beijing is gaining new allies in the Western Hemisphere, Chinese naval presence in Latin America and the Caribbean is pretty limited: a destroyer Shijiazhuang and the supply ship Hongzehu visited Chile in 2009; four years later, destroyer Lanzhou and frigate Liuzhou visited Argentina in 2013. Additionally, China’s Peace Ark (866 Daishan Dao), a Type 920 hospital ship that is operated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has visited the Western Hemisphere as part of “Harmonious Mission 2011” and “Harmonious Mission 2015.” Nevertheless, if more regional governments recognize Beijing (and there are constant rumors about which will be the next country to do so), and as Beijing seeks to project its naval presence well past its borders, there may be a larger Chinese naval presence in the Western Hemisphere in the coming years.

Rear Admiral Wang Fushan (third from right), deputy commander of the North Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy, holds a meeting with officers from the Chilean naval forces aboard the Chinese destroyer Shijiazhuang, in Valparaiso. (News.cn)

The Flotilla in Context

The visit of the three-vessel Taiwanese flotilla in itself is not meaningful as Taiwan does not have bases in the Western Hemisphere, nor does Taipei have some kind of collective security-type defense treaty with regional countries. In other words, this visit does not signify that Taiwan would come to the aid of one of its regional partners, should one of them be attacked by a third party. Hence, the international media has placed the visit in the context of Taipei-Beijing and Taipei-Washington relations; for example Reuters published a piece titled “Taiwan warships drop anchor in Nicaragua amid sinking ties with China,” while the Strait Times titled its own report on the subject, “China demands halt of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, as island stresses Central America ties with navy visit.”

Additionally, given ongoing tensions with China, there have been a number of reports about the Taiwanese Navy undergoing  a modernization process to obtain new platforms. There have been similar discussions in Washington regarding what kind of weaponry should the U.S. sell Taiwan. It is worth noting that in 2017 the Taiwanese Navy received two decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates but ongoing Washington-Beijing tensions seem to hint that more modern equipment (including submarine technology) could be sold to Taipei as part of ever-changing geopolitics in Asia.

While the recent visit of a Taiwanese flotilla will not affect Central American or Caribbean geopolitics, its use is more symbolic, as it demonstrates that the Asian nation strives to maintain diplomatic relations with its remaining friends in the Western Hemisphere. Taiwan’s naval diplomacy, unlike similar initiatives by other countries, is not so much about maintaining cordial defense relations, but maintaining diplomatic relations. Countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua still recognize Taiwan, but the recent loss of DR, which occurred right after the flotilla visited the country, is an example that such initiatives, defense and others, must be constant.

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Featured Image: Nicaraguan students wave Taiwanese flags to welcome three Taiwanese Navy warships at Corinto port, some 149km north-west of Managua, on April 9, 2018. (Photo: AFP)