The US thwarted China’s attempt to gain inroads in Latin America by persuading Argentina not to opt for Chinese-made JF-17 fighter jets. However, China is making another attempt to enter the American backyard in Latin America by marketing its Main Battle Tank-3000 VT-4 to Colombia.
It remains to be seen if Colombia, one of the oldest allies of the US, will bite the bullet.
Since the pandemic, as the US remained absent, Colombia became more dependent on Chinese financing and contractors as a source of local job creation. During the COVID, China was the first country to send vaccines to Colombia. In 2021, in recognition of China’s help in fighting the Coronavirus, Xi was invited to give a speech to the people of Colombia via video link.
With an eye on the US, Beijing has been cozying up to Bogota as it upgraded its ties with the South American country to a strategic partnership in 2023.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro visited China and met President Xi Jinping in October 2023. It was the first visit of the Colombian President after taking office in 2022. China hopes its dallying with Colombia will give it a strong foothold in Latin America.
The China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), a giant in the Chinese defense industry, has recently made “a bold proposal” to Colombia by offering its MBT-3000 (VT-4). “This move marks a significant milestone in military relations between China and Colombia and could significantly transform the dynamics of military power in the region,” media reports said.
At the beginning of December, Norinco made a live demonstration of a wide range of military vehicles it manufactures, including MBT tanks, light tanks, infantry combat vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and mine-protected vehicles.
The Colombian Army has been keen to augment its armored capabilities and create an armored brigade in La Guajira, an arid region in the north. It must also replace its inventory’s aging fleet of Brazilian armored vehicles. Its American-made ASV-M-1117 also needs an upgrade as the older Brazilian armored car is being phased out.
The Chinese MBT-3000 VT-4 would add quite a punch to Colombian armor strength. During the live demonstration, Norinco highlighted the capabilities of these tanks. And there is a high chance that 44 of these tanks can be acquired to create Colombia’s first armored unit.
The VT-4 is a third-generation tank developed especially for export. It is based on the Soviet-vintage T-72 tanks. The MBT-3000 is similar to the Type 99G, which is currently in service with the PLA. The tank is said to have compromised on sights, propulsion, and gun capabilities compared to Type 99G to bring down the cost.
The low cost makes it ideal for developing countries looking to upgrade their inventory. Pakistan selected the VT4 tanks to replace its older MBTs in July 2019 and took delivery of two upgraded VT4 tanks in April 2020. Thailand has placed an order for the tanks. The Nigerian Army received VT4 main battle tanks from Norinco in April 2020.
The gross vehicle weight of the tank is approximately 52,000 kg. The tank is manned by three crew members: the commander, driver, and gunner. The driver’s seat is in the center of the forward hull with a single hatch. The tank features an air-conditioning system, a fire extinguisher, and an explosion suppression system.
“Norinco’s proposal to Colombia reflects China’s growing power in the global defense sector. It also reflects the evolution of military needs and alliances in Latin America. If this acquisition materializes, it will mark a significant turning point in the modernization of the Colombian armed forces, giving them a greatly enhanced deterrent and combat capability,” the news report read.
Bogota’s defense ties with Beijing have been slow-moving, but they have seen an uptick. Over the years, China has donated small military equipment. Gifts from the PRC over the years have included hats and gloves for Colombia’s high-mountain battalions during the Uribe government and donations of mobile bridges and two Y-12 medium transport aircraft, given in April 2014.
The Chinese aircraft spent several years in service with Satena, the national airline run by the Colombian military to service the remote parts of the country underserved by traditional airlines until they were ultimately removed due to concerns over their structural integrity following a weather incident.
China’s Charm Offensive In South America
By upgrading relations with Colombia, China now has strategic ties with 10 out of the 11 Latin American countries. Guyana is the only country in the region with only ordinary and bilateral relations with Beijing. Beijing aims to have a strategic influence in South America to match that of the US.
China has aggressively marketed its JF-17 ‘Thunder’ to Argentina. The US State Department scrambled to counter the Chinese offer to supply JF-17 to Buenos Aires. It immediately offered Danish F-16s meant for Ukraine to Bueno Aires. The F-16s provided to Argentina include AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 air-to-air missiles, the two main air-to-air missiles used by the US Air Force.
The US has approved the sale of the 38 F-16 fighters to Argentina. The approval considers a package of support, equipment, and maintenance information in addition to armament. Washington has been harping on the fact that the F-16 is a battle-proven platform with a high availability of spare parts. While the jet belongs to the first versions of the aircraft, it can undergo modernization to keep them fighting fit.
Argentinian news outlets called it “an operation with enormous geopolitical impact in which Washington competes directly with China.” The Argentinian Air Force’s operational inventory includes 10 A-4 fighter bombers armed with IA-63 Pampa jet trainer supplements.
Argentina’s newly elected President, Javier Milei, paid lip service to the US by publicly presenting a less optimistic view on diplomatic ties with China. However, his government has officially requested the renewal of its currency swap with Argentina as one of the very acts of his presidency.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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