WASHINGTON, DC — China’s decision to expand its ambitious multi-trillion-dollar “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative to Latin America may create security vulnerabilities for the United States by allowing Beijing to expand its influence over the region, the chief of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) cautioned lawmakers.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, Adm. Kurt Tidd, the commander of SOUTHCOM, testified that Beijing has already pledged $500 billion in trade funds with various Latin American countries and $250 billion in Chinese direct investment over the next decade, adding:
Increased economic cooperation—such as the extension of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative to Latin America, one of the nodes to support China’s vision of a competing global economic initiative—and the continued provision of financing and loans that appear to have “no strings attached” provide ample opportunity for China to expand its influence over key regional partners and promote unfair business and labor practices.
Increased reach to key global access points like Panama create commercial and security vulnerabilities for the United States, as do Chinese telecommunications and space ventures with dual-use potential, which could facilitate intelligence collection, compromise communication networks, and ultimately constrain our ability to work with our partners.
Adm. Tidd’s warnings about Chinese activities in Latin America are contained in SOUTHCOM’s 2018 posture statement, a summary of the combatant command’s role, mission, operations, and budget presented to Congress on an annual basis in the form of written testimony.
In this year’s document, Tidd stressed that China is intensifying its role as a U.S. rival in Latin America, telling lawmakers:
The larger strategic challenge posed by China in this region is not yet a military one. It is an economic one, and a new approach may be required to compete effectively against China’s coordinated efforts in the Americas. Some of the most critical elements needed in this effort are not ones that [SOUTHCOM] can bring to bear.
Beijing’s estimated $3 trillion OBOR project, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the modern-day “Silk Road,” is expected to be a massive network of land and sea links connecting Xinjiang, China’s biggest province, to more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa along one route.
Although Tidd said that China’s operations in Latin Ameria do not “yet” pose a military threat, he conceded that China is increasingly recruiting Latin Americans who participate in the U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.
IMET has facilitated the attendance of nearly 16,000 students from the region to various American war colleges, noted Tidd.
“China, in particular, is increasingly aggressive in courting students from the region to attend Chinese military schools, offering to cover all expenses and salaries in return for increased student enrollment,” stated SOUTHCOM’s posture statement.
“They basically have taken a leaf out of our book, and they are very lavishly funding to bring senior military officers from a variety of key countries around our region to China for very lavishly expensed, all-expense-paid trips for them, for their families, to be able to live a very high lifestyle in the countries,” Adm. Tidd also told lawmakers.
The SOUTHCOM chief described the presence of China and Russia as the “most significant concerns” for the U.S. military in Latin America, telling lawmakers:
They are global concerns, and so they are of concern because they are very present and aggressive in the U.S. SOUTHCOM theater … When it comes specifically to Russia and China, the very best thing we can do is to be the best possible partners that we can with countries who are absolutely interested, committed, [and] want to work with us … our ability to be able to work with them facilitates the kinds of information sharing that is critical to having an effective common defense for the challenges we face.
He also noted that the U.S. military remains concerned about activities linked to the long-term presence of Iran and its Shiite narcoterrorist proxy Hezbollah in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR), which includes Latin American countries below Mexico and the Caribbean.
Adm. Tidd did not contest assertions from Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) that, “in Latin America, Russia, today, is supplying 40 percent of the arms sales. China is the second-largest trading partner in Latin America. Iran is in there through Hezbollah.”
Tidd also pointed out that Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) recruiting activities in Latin America and the Caribbean present a menace to the United States.
“Groups such as the Islamic State and others will likely continue recruiting fighters or inspiring others to carry out attacks in their home countries,” he said, noting that “criminal and extremist threat networks” remain the region’s “primary challenges.”
The admiral further warned that North Korea’s presence in the region could potentially threaten the United States, telling the Senate panel:
North Korea may use its small presence in Latin America to do us harm while also looking to develop expanded economic and diplomatic partnerships. We remain concerned that Pyongyang could use its limited footprint in the region to collect or plot against us.
Given the permissive environment in the region, North Korean efforts to generate revenue, and its history of working with supporters like Cuba to circumvent sanctions, North Korea is likely to engage in some form of illicit activity in Latin America.
Despite all the challenges facing the U.S. military in Latin America in the Caribbean, the commander said SOUTHCOM lacks the resources to carry out its mission.
“Our global security responsibilities outpace the resources available to meet them, we have had to make a series of tough choices, resulting in compounding second and third order effects,” he said.