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Sunday, April 29, 2012

US sees South America as possible China counter

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT – In these days of shrinking U.S. defense budgets, the Obama administration is looking to South America to help monitor and protect the Asia-Pacific region in the years ahead.

During visits to Colombia, Brazil and Chile last week, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta underscored their importance as military partners in the Pacific, where China is challenging U.S. influence in a number of countries.

As those defense relationships grow, officials say it can only help U.S. economic and political ties across South America.

Panetta’s talks 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 defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were private.

U.S. 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 countries might eventually be willing to take on some of the training mission, which will need advisers as other NATO nations withdraw their troops.

With the U.S. turning its focus from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s new military strategy puts more importance on the Asia-Pacific region. North Korea is a growing threat, while China is building its military and working to expand its political and economic influence.

The Pentagon is poised to move more forces to the Pacific, including rotating units in and out of Australia. The U.S. has long provided training, equipment, assistance and a security umbrella for many in the region.

With looming budget cuts that will reduce the size of the military, the U.S. 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.”

Defense chiefs Juan Carlos Pinzon, of Colombia; Celso Amorim, of Brazil; and Andres Allamand, of Chile, brought up cyberthreats as a major concern, including incidents of hacker attacks and data thefts, U.S. defense officials said.

One official said the three countries want help from the U.S. 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 is likely to involve China, which is gaining steadily as a top trading partner and economic developer in South America. It’s surpassing the U.S. in trade with Brazil, Chile and Peru, and is a close second in Argentina and Colombia.

For the first time, U.S. intelligence officials publicly called out China late last year as a significant cyberthreat. While they didn’t directly tie attacks to the Beijing government, they said the Chinese are systematically stealing American high-tech data for their own economic gain.

The unusually forceful public report seemed to signal a new, more vocal U.S. government campaign against the cyberattacks.

The Pentagon’s clandestine National Security Agency is an acknowledged world leader in cybertechnologies. U.S. officials have struggled to work out ways for the government to help other nations.