Top U.S. Commanders in Africa, Latin America: Belt and Road Helps China Expand Militarily

President Xi Jinping wore a Mao suit as he was driven in an open-top jeep past serried ranks of the People's Liberation Army, in a rare show of force in Hong Kong
AFP DALE DE LA REY
EDWIN MORA

WASHINGTON, DC — China is using its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project as a tool to expand its financial and military influence across Latin America and Africa, the two American commanders respectively charged with overseeing United States military activities in those regions cautioned on Thursday.

Both commanders accused China of using “debt traps” through OBOR, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to undermine the sovereignty of borrowing countries in Africa and Latin America.

China’s ambitious OBOR seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road by linking Beijing to Europe and the Western Hemisphere through a massive network of land and sea routes.

On Thursday, Adm. Craig Faller, the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) chief, and Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) leader, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about their mission and goals in their respective area of responsibility (AOR).

The commanders unveiled the annual posture statements for SOUTHCOM and AFRICOM in the form of written testimony prepared for the Senate panel. SOUTHCOM is responsible for U.S. military activities in the Caribbean and Latin American countries below Mexico. AFRICOM oversees American military operations in Africa, except for Egypt.

Adm. Faller declared in SOUTHCOM’s 2019 posture statement:

China utilizes the same predatory, non-transparent foreign lending practices [in Latin America] it has implemented around the world to exert political and economic leverage in certain countries. China has pledged at least $150 billion in loans to countries in the hemisphere, and 16 nations now participate in the Belt and Road Initiative.

All across Latin America, China is “investing in over 56 ports” primarily through OBOR, he told lawmakers.

China’s OBOR-linked debt trap diplomacy is rapidly ensnaring Latin America, the admiral said, noting in the posture statement, “China has accelerated expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative [in Latin America] at a pace that may one day overshadow its expansion in Southeast Asia and Africa.”

Beijing is in Latin America “in force and they have a long term vision economically and militarily. Our best counter is education and being there,” the admiral told lawmakers.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly warned African countries that China is using “debt traps” to undermine the sovereignty of participant countries and ultimately bend borrowing countries to its will.

On Thursday, Gen. Waldhauser noted in AFRICOM’s 2019 posture statement,

African nations who become signatories to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (the BRI) receive promises of development, defense, and cultural investments in their countries, further enhancing China’s influence while challenging our own partnerships in Africa.

China has surfaced as a top competitor for the U.S. in Africa, the top general conceded, telling lawmakers:

What we try to do from the AFRICOM or [Pentagon] perspective is try to show [African countries] that we are the best partner, the type of training we give them, the weapons perhaps that are sold by the United States have high quality and try to make sure that our influence remains. It’s a difficult task.

China has established its first overseas military base in the strategically located African country of Djibouti, which also houses facilities for the armed forces of several other countries, including the United States.

Gen. Waldhauser wrote:

Djibouti’s increasing partnership with China across defense, trade, and financial sectors encroaches on and, at times, diminishes U.S. access and influence … U.S. Africa Command considers access to Djibouti…an imperative to ensure U.S. strategic interests are not compromised.

Gen. Waldhauser warned that China might use OBOR to expand its military presence in Africa.

“The Belt and Road is what is driving all of this,” he said.

Asked if he expects China to establish more military bases on the continent, Waldhauser responded:

Although Djibouti is the only [Chinese overseas] base, they’re certainly looking at other options. … The growth of their military on the continent, I don’t know that it will turn out to be, but I do know that the Chinese they’ve made a conscious decision to start there [Djibouti], and they’re not going to get smaller.

China’s investments in Africa are reportedly rooted in access to natural resources and consumer markets. Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and lucrative natural resources.

Waldhauser indicated that China is more engaged in Africa than the United States, noting that Beijing has established a presence in places where the U.S. has not, particularly on the western part of the continent.

Latin America’s participation in OBOR could ultimately hinder the region’s relationship with the United States, the SOUTHCOM commander acknowledged.

Adm. Fuller noted that he was warned Latin American countries against the Belt and Road project, telling them:

If you leverage your ports and many of your businesses, including IT infrastructure to Chinese companies with no strings attached and a limited understand of the what the internal workings are you’ve actually put yourself in jeopardy of having a meaningful security relationship with us. It gets to a point where I won’t be allowed or authorized to share information because I don’t know where that information is going.

Both commanders also warned that Russia represents a top menace against America’s interests in Latin America and Africa.

Under U.S. President Donald Trump, the American military is prioritizing combatting the rise of key strategic competitors China and Russia over other threats.

Several countries have turned against some Chinese OBOR projects.

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