SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says his nation plans to launch "the Simon Bolivar satellite" now being built in China as part of plans to develop an integrated ground- and space-based air defense — presumably against the United States.
"We have 100 satellite technicians training in China who be back in the next few months. The radars, tracking stations and air defenses are being installed right now," Mr. Chavez said this week on his television talk show, "Hello President."
With the Chinese ambassador present for the performance, Mr. Chavez made extensive comments on Venezuela's growing ties with China in areas such as oil exports and national defense.
"In less than a year, we will be launching the Simon Bolivar satellite with China" he said.
His statements highlight China's expanding military ties with Latin America at a time of increasing concern about Chinese capabilities to wage electronic warfare.
"The U.S. needs to be alert to rapidly expanding Chinese capabilities particularly in the field of intelligence, communications and cyber-warfare and their particular application in the region," said former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere, Roger Pardo Maurer, in recent congressional testimony.
"We would encourage other nations in the hemisphere to take a close look at how such activities can be used against their own countries and the United States," the Pentagon official said.
China has moved into a vacuum created with the election of leftist, anti-American governments throughout Latin America, Venezuela being the most prominent example.
Close ties have been forged with Venezuela through repeated visits by senior Chinese officials who have expressed support for Mr. Chavez's efforts to establish a socialist one-party state.
China has developed space programs with Brazil and Argentina and a military exchange program with Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, wants to close the U.S. base in Manta.
Beijing also is cultivating military ties with Mexico, Peru, Chile and various Caribbean countries. In addition, it operates an electronic eavesdropping station in Cuba.
Mr. Chavez said that once the Venezuelan engineers return from China, they will operate air defenses being built with Chinese and Russian technology.
Venezuela has purchased Chinese JYL-1 mobile air-defense radars that would interface with satellites to monitor the airspace around Venezuela, reaching nearly 250 miles into the Caribbean, Colombia and Panama, Mr. Chavez said.
He said the system that will be integrated with anti-aircraft missiles and become completely operational in two years.
Mr. Chavez, who claims the U.S. has attempted to assassinate him and often warns of an Iraq-style U.S. invasion of Venezuela, already has the most powerful air force in South America with his recent acquisition of 24 Sukhoi Su-30 fighters from Russia.
He also is negotiating the purchase of nine Russian submarines.
Some analysts argue that China's new defense relationship with Latin America also is geared toward protecting its growing commercial and economic interests in the area.
China has invested heavily in Venezuela's oil industry as part of efforts to gain ever greater access to energy sources.
They are jointly planning a pipeline through Panama to pump 800,000 barrels of oil a day to Pacific ports. This would allow a vast increase in Venezuelan exports to China at the possible expense of the U.S.