US looks to South America for security partners
WASHINGTON IN these days of shrinking defence budgets, the US is looking to its southern neighbours to help monitor and protect the Asia Pacific region in the years ahead.
Travelling to Colombia, Brazil and Chile this week, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta underscored the importance of those nations as military partners in a region where the US influence in a number of countries is being challenged by China. And as the military relationships grow, defence officials say it can only help US economic and political ties across the continent.
Panetta’s talks with senior defence leaders from the three nations also focused on how the United States can support their military efforts, including those directed at the expanding threat of cyberattacks, according to several senior defence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were private.
US officials left the region thinking that at some point there may be opportunities to talk with South American nations about helping to train Afghan forces after NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014. Officials would provide no details on which nations might eventually be willing to take on some of the training mission, which will be in need of advisers as other NATO nations pull their troops out.
With the US shifting its focus away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s new military strategy puts more importance on the Asia Pacific region, where North Korea is a growing threat and China is rapidly building its military and its political and economic influence.
The Pentagon is poised to move more forces to the Pacific region, including plans to rotate units in and out of Australia.
The US has long provided training, equipment, assistance and a security umbrella for many of the Asia Pacific nations. With budget cuts looming that will reduce the size of the military, the US is looking to South American countries to be more active global partners.
“The United States, just like other countries, are facing budget constrictions, which are going to affect the future,” Panetta told reporters at a news conference in Brazil.
“And what we believe is that the best way to approach the future is to develop partnerships, alliances, to develop relationships with other countries, share information, share assistance, share capabilities, and in that way we can provide greater security for the future.” Panetta would also like to see the South American countries use their greater military capability to train some of the Central American countries that are not as advanced.
All three defence chiefs, Juan Camillo Pinzon of Colombia, Celso Amorim of Brazil and Andres Allamand of Chile, brought up cyber threats as a major concern for their countries, including incidents of hacker attacks and data thefts, the US defence officials said as they flew home from Chile, the last stop on the trip.
The three countries, said one of the officials, want help from the US in hardening their computer networks against breaches and increasing their technological skills.
The official said there is a recognition of how vulnerable they are, and they want to learn more about the nature of the threat and how to combat it.
That threat, however, is also likely to involve China, which is steadily gaining as a top trading partner and economic developer in South America.
It’s surpassing the US in trade with Brazil, Chile and Peru, and is a close second in Argentina and Colombia.