China and Russia are challenging the US for dominance in Latin America by pursuing trade and military deals
While the United States remains deeply focused on its adventure in Iraq, new security challenges are emerging in other parts of the world. One of the most intriguing is in Ecuador, a nation of 14 million on the Pacific shoulder of South America that has rarely figured in global politics.
For the last decade, the US has operated an air and naval base in the coastal Ecuadoran city of Manta. The 475 Americans based there use Awacs surveillance planes and other advanced equipment to interdict cocaine shipments headed north. Since 1999 they have reported carrying out thousands of missions and confiscating drugs with a street value that reaches billions of dollars.
Critics suspect that more goes on at the Manta base than just drug interdiction. They believe it may also have been used to support clandestine operations against leftist guerrillas fighting in nearby Colombia, which is 20 minutes away by air, and to monitor communications in Ecuador and nearby countries.
President Rafael Correa, a US-educated nationalist who is part of the leftist wave that has washed over Latin America in recent years, campaigned on a promise to close the Manta base when its lease expires in 2009. It is a reflection of how radically things have changed in Latin America that he was not only able to win with that promise, but is now carrying it out.
This will mean a serious setback to the ill-conceived American "war on drugs". A senior US officer at Manta told the Los Angeles Times that "the geographical position of Manta is invaluable" and the base "is a terribly important asset in the war on drugs".
Losing this "forward operating location" in the drug war, however, would not be the only consequence of closing the Manta base. President Correa has offered to lease it to China.
During a visit to Beijing in November, Correa said China could turn the Manta base into a transit port from which to exploit the riches of the Amazon. China, which is engaged in a headlong rush for timber, minerals and other resources around the world, is said to be looking favourably on the idea.
This deal, if consummated, will mark a major leap for Chinese strategic influence in the western hemisphere. China would undoubtedly use the base for security and intelligence operations like those the US is said to be carrying out there today. It would be the first time US and Chinese interests pushed so closely against each other in the Americas.
China is already making large strategic investments in another Latin American country, Panama. This is evidently the beginning of a long-term relationship. The teaching of Mandarin has been made compulsory in Panamanian schools.
Russia is also challenging the US in Latin America. In retaliation for US plans to build missile defence installations in Europe, Russia has threatened to build a refuelling base in Cuba for its nuclear-armed aircraft.
All of this raises the prospect of a suddenly changed hemispheric balance. It would be defined by a Russian base in Cuba, effective Chinese control over the Panama Canal and a Chinese base in Ecuador from which China could project power into Pacific sea lanes while exploiting the Amazon more systematically than anyone ever has.
The US may have been showing its displeasure at this prospect when President Correa passed through the Miami airport on his way to China. Immigration officials refused to recognise his official status. Instead they treated him like an ordinary passenger, a slight that Ecuador's foreign minister called a "humiliation of a head of state, from arrogance by a country that believes itself above all others".
This pitiful kind of pressure is not going to persuade Ecuador to change its mind about closing the Manta base. There is one thing that might, however. President Correa has offered a quid pro quo. He will withdraw his opposition to extending the base's lease, he says, if the US will allow Ecuador to build a military base in Florida.
The US should take him up on his offer. Doing so would allow the US to hold onto a base it considers strategically important, prevent the base from falling into Chinese hands and signal a new approach to Latin America. It might even be the beginning of a trend that would be healthy for the whole world: allowing foreign countries to operate military bases in the United States.
Allowing these bases to open would give Americans some sense of what it means to be host to a foreign military force. They will see foreign flags flying over military installations on American soil, and see jeeps full of uniformed foreign soldiers driving on their streets. Pieces of the US would have been turned over limited foreign control.
The US maintains more than 700 military bases around the world, far more than any power in modern history. Americans assume that their government has every right and reason to maintain these bases. Many would be horrified, however, if another country opened a base on US territory. Why this imbalance?
Opening an Ecuadoran military base in Florida would no more infringe on American sovereignty than the Manta base infringes on Ecuador's. It might even lead some Americans to begin wondering why the US needs so many foreign military outposts, and whether some of them may be creating popular hostility that outweighs their military value.