The best defence is offence goes the saying. In South America, that is increasingly being taken to heart.
For a long time, the region has been a reliable depository for second-hand big military items (fighter aircraft and ships) and big but ill-trained armies whose uses were best suited to internal operations or border skirmishes. A few US bases here and there ensured Washington's reach through what it long considered its backyard.
But that scheme of things is changing. Ambitions, fuelled a need by South American nations to protect increasingly valuable natural resources such as oil, long-simmering tensions between neighbours such as Colombia and Venezuela, and extra cash generated by the boom in commodities, are transforming the strategic outlook.
The United States, having neglected the region during most of the Bush years, has renewed its attention to the region. After seeing its DEA agents kicked out of Bolivia, a key military base closed by Ecuador, countries such as Argentina and Brazil becoming increasingly assertive against US influence, the coup in Honduras, and of course Venezuela's decision to arm itself with sophisticated Russian weaponry, Washington has woken up to the possibility of conflict in South America into which it would inevitably be drawn. It has already reactivated its Fourth Fleet. Now - to the alarm of many South American nations - it has also negotiated to use seven Colombian military bases, ostensibly to fight drug trafficking.
What is emerging is an arms race in South America that so far has largely gone unnoticed -- but which could be announced with a bang in the future.
The bases issue is proving especially contentious. Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, hastily arranged a tour of some regional capitals to explain the decision, while US President Barack Obama dispatched his national security advisor to Brazil to do the same. Apart from Peru - which is friendly to the US and, like Colombia, benefits from a US free trade agreement - hostility has met the proposed deal almost everywhere. Venezuela and Ecuador fear US-backed military action against them from Colombia. Their ally Bolivia is indignant about the US 'empire' having any foothold at all in Latin America. Even more moderate Brazil and Chile are opposed, questioning why the US needs such a sizeable permanent deployment in Colombia to fight drug-running rebels Bogota itself says it has on the run.
Venezuela and Ecuador last year nearly entered into armed conflict with Colombia over a raid by Colombia's army inside Ecuador to destroy a rebel FARC base. Tensions subsided for a while but have now returned with Uribe accusing Chavez of arming the FARC and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa receiving FARC election financing. A handshake between Obama and Chavez during a US-Latin America summit earlier this year has been forgotten. The region remains divided between a couple of US allies (Colombia and Peru), a few anti-US nations (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia) and a bunch claiming neutrality (Brazil, Argentina, Chile) but which reject US interference on their patch.
Brazil in particular appears bent on joining the big boys, to boost its political clout in line with its economic heft. With a UN Security Council seat its longterm goal, that means having the ability to project military power, not simply defend borders or react to homegrown events.
In 2000, it bought a mothballed French aircraft carrier, the Foch, and renamed it the São Paulo. This year it signed a deal for four French subs and the joint development of Latin America's first nuclear sub. Part of the logic is to defend potentially huge offshore oil reserves, but experts believe Brazil's goal of 'blue water' capability signals a determination to deploy anywhere along South America's eastern coast and into the Caribbean, if needed.
One strategic aim left unspoken by Brazilian officials is the aim to neutralize any threat from Venezuela, its oil-rich neighbour to the north. Relations so far are cordial between Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but the possibility of a flare-up between Venezuela and Colombia (or between Ecuador and Peru, or Bolivia and Peru) underscore the instability Brazil could be swept up into sooner rather than later.
Venezuela's recent purchase of 24 Russian/Chinese-made SU-30MK fighters (advanced, fast, cheap and highly maneuverable) have robbed Brazil of the air attack superiority it enjoyed with its ageing fleet of 12 French-made Mirages. And air operations are the most important warfare option in South America, where the Andes and the Amazon create barriers to land-based actions.
Which is why Brasilia is on the brink of choosing advanced modern planes and expanding its attack fleet to 36 aircraft. It is due to announce next month which plane - France's Rafale, the F/18 from the US or Sweden's Gripen NG - will win the tender, estimated to be worth up to four billion dollars.
The Rafale is seen as the frontrunner, not least because French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been invited to Brazil for September 7 Independence Day celebrations and to sign some unspecified contracts. The French jet, which has stealth-like abilities (and, soon, the ability to launch nuclear missiles if required), is seen as the one best suited to defeating the SU-30MK. And to seal the deal, Paris has agreed to Brasilia's demand that it be a technology-sharing deal, meaning Brazil's Embraer aircraft manufacturer will one day be able to build its own advanced fighters.
The Venezuelan ability to strike harder and faster than its neighbours has also unnerved Colombia and the US. Colombia, is in the process of upgrading its own air force slightly, by buying the improved Kfir versions of the Mirage modified by the Israeli air force, but can't by itself stand up to Venezuela any more either. Which is where the US bases likely come in. With Colombia under a stronger US umbrella, any military incursion by Venezuela would be answered with overwhelming US force.
Chavez is railing against the bases deal, but he too has a powerful sponsor on his side: Russia, which has the option of using Venezuelan airbases for its long-range bombers and which late last year held 'joint' naval exercises with Venezuela in the Caribbean.
Don't look now, but the Cold War could be warming up in the tropics of South America.
In this blog, reporters and editors for global news wire AFP blog about the news they report and the challenges they face covering events from Baghdad to Beijing, the White House to Darfur. Marc Burleigh is AFP's Brazil-based Latin America correspondent.