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Luis Giacoma, a former instructor at the Peruvian army’s and navy’s intelligence schools, said the army is more politically powerful and more anti-U.S. than the other military branches. He also said China’s increasing investment and trade influence are likely leading to increased pressure on Peru’s defense officials to look hard at Beijing’s military offerings.

“The navy and air force tend to favor relations with the U.S.,” he said. “But the army leadership is vehemently anti-U.S. and favors links with China and Russia.”

President Ollanta Humala, a populist leader whose father is a communist activist, is a former army colonel. In November, his defense minister, Daniel Mora, signed a memorandum of understanding with Guo Boxiong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission.

“The current bilateral relations between China and Peru are at one of the best moments in history,” Gen. Guo told reporters during the meeting in Lima. “We emphasize the development of relations between the two states and between both armed forces.”

Increasing investments

Gen. Guo said the countries’ militaries have deepened ties with “frequent high-level visits.”

Mr. Mora, now a congressman, said he doesn’t think Peruvian officials will start favoring Chinese arms makers because of the communist nation’s growing economic influence.

“Chinese armaments have not had particular prestige internationally,” he said. “But they are improving on them and are eager to put their products out to the world, just like any other country.”

Since a free-trade agreement between the two countries took effect in 2010, China has replaced the U.S. as Peru’s largest export market. It also has become Peru’s largest investor in mining projects, some of which have provoked protests from indigenous groups complaining of social and environmental exploitation.

Mr. Giacoma said that 17 Chinese intelligence officials met last year with their Peruvian counterparts at the Peruvian army’s headquarters.

“I’ve been told they discussed Chinese arms sales and plans on how to ensure the security of Chinese workers and investments,” he said.

Mr. Ellis said in an email that the growing physical presence of Chinese companies in the region “will force [China] to confront challenges that others doing business there have long faced: management-labor relations, negotiations with local governments, opposition by environmentalists and local communities, and physical security, among others.”

He noted that, in Colombia, Chinese officials are working with their security counterparts to secure the release of Chinese oil workers kidnapped last June. He also cited a case in Honduras where the government is using the armed forces to provide security for the Chinese company Sinohydro, which is building the Patuca III hydroelectric project.