China’s influence in America’s back yard is intensifying, according to the U.S. military commander for Central and South America, as he highlighted Beijing’s investments in infrastructure, military training, and equipment in the region.
“Most concerning, certain investments have strategic value for future military uses,” said Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command (pdf).
“The ‘aha!’ moment for me this past year has been the extent to which China is aggressively pursuing their interests right here in our neighborhood,” he told the House Armed Services Committee on March 11.
The region represents a vicious circle of threats to the stability and security of the U.S. homeland, Faller said.
He said that the U.S. military presence would be ramped up in the region later this year, to reassure allies and partners.
“This will include an enhanced presence of ships, aircraft, and security forces, ” he said.
Weak institutions and corruption within young democracies in the region are being preyed upon by transnational criminal organizations (worth $90 billion a year) and by China, Russia, and Iran, he said.
The Pentagon is currently reviewing the different geographical commands to realign them with the needs of the National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes tackling China and Russia.
The military’s pivot away from counterinsurgency has focused on revamping military equipment and strategy to undo the strategic advantages built up by Russia in Europe and China in the Pacific region.
But far away from these military neighborhoods, in places such as in Africa, Pentagon leadership has still underscored that the priority is on tackling “great power competition” with Russia and China.
In written testimony, Faller said, “As the Department of Defense has prioritized the Indo-Pacific region, Beijing has aggressively turned its attention to the Western Hemisphere, exporting corrupt business practices and disregard for international law and standards to countries already struggling with government corruption and weak governance.”
Faller described China’s growing influence in Southcom as a “concerning trend,” noting the growing impact of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as One Belt, One Road)—the name given to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy and propaganda push.
“Last year, the Chinese government absorbed three more Latin American countries into [BRI], bringing the regional total to 19—more than half of all countries in the region,” Faller said.
The region is home to a quarter of all U.S. exports, he said, as well as key global infrastructure, such as the Panama Canal, sea lanes, and deep-water ports.
Belt and Road Initiative
Chinese infrastructure investments could allow its military to threaten sea lanes “vital to global commerce” and the movement of U.S. forces, said Faller.
He also noted that fleets of Chinese-flagged fishing vessels routinely violate the sovereign fishing rights of coastal states.
“With 19 Latin American and Caribbean nations now participating in the [BRI] and pledges of at least $150 billion in loans, [China] is now the region’s largest investor and creditor, practicing the same type of predatory financing and ‘no strings attached’ largesse it has wielded in other parts of the world,” said Faller.
“This includes ‘gifts’ of equipment to regional militaries and aiming to copy our successful military education program.”
“Beijing is also gaining real-time, street-level situational awareness by selling surveillance technology through its ‘Smart Cities’ initiative,” said Faller. “The same technology the Chinese Communist Party uses to monitor and repress its citizens.”
South America is also seen by Beijing as a strategic location of “immense value” for space activity, said Faller, and is pursuing five additional points of access to regional space infrastructure.
“They certainly recognize the importance of this part of the world,” he told members of the House Committee, “and so must we.”
Faller also highlighted the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, where almost 5 million people have fled after the economic collapse and crisis under regime leader Nicolás Maduro.
“Under Russian and Cuban tutelage, oppression in Venezuela is ever-increasing,” he said.
“Russia continues to play the role of ‘spoiler,’ seeking to sow disunity and discredit the United States within our own hemisphere,” he said.
“Russia once again projected power in our neighborhood, establishing a military footprint in Venezuela; deploying (for the first time) its most advanced nuclear-capable warship; and sending a research ship capable of mapping and cutting undersea cables, as well as two other naval research vessels to operate near our homeland.”