China is pursuing a dramatic increase in trade and investment in Latin America. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers and regional experts are calling on President Joe Biden to reverse what they describe as years of U.S. underinvestment in and inattention to Latin America that they say has harmed U.S. interests. Adm. Craig S. Faller, who will retire later this year as head of U.S. Southern Command, has a keen sense of the security risks and opportunities posed by China’s growing influence and activity in the Western Hemisphere. Faller has been visiting with Caribbean leaders this week and agreed to share some observations with China Watcher about his three years monitoring the region. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
In your 2021 Southern Command Posture Statement issued in March, you provided substantial detail about your assessment of the PRC’s threats — economic, diplomatic and military — to U.S. interests in the region. Five months later, how has your assessment evolved?
The PRC has upped its mil-to-mil game, offering extensive military education opportunities, cyber engineering scholarships and annual “no strings attached” security cooperation packages that in many cases far exceed the value of similar programs offered by Western partners, including the United States.
PRC state-owned and private businesses often exploit pervasive corruption in the region to undermine fair contracting practices and circumvent environmental compliance. A common tactic they use is to provide lucrative pay offs to local officials in exchange for favorable deals.
To be sure, there are legitimate aspects of these activities that provide needed investment to a region still recovering from the impact of Covid-19. It’s incumbent on all of us to forge a way ahead that recognizes the important role [China] can play as part of a rules-based international order.
But here is the friction: The PRC does not seek fair competition based on rules. It seeks to create dependencies, not trusted partnerships. Through its deepening economic ties and coercive influence, Beijing is vying for key support from regional partners on U.N. votes and backing for Chinese appointees to multinational institutions. Ultimately, Beijing wants to create a global system in which authoritarian regimes are viewed as legitimate forms of governance. A system where the rule of law, human rights and free speech are stifled. A system where international norms are manipulated for its own benefit, and it’s happening now.
What is your security nightmare regarding China in Latin America and the Caribbean?
Beijing is more comfortable dealing with authoritarian regimes like its own. The PRC’s behavior in Venezuela provides a case-in-point. It’s no coincidence that Chinese companies provide gifts and kickbacks to grease the wheels while doing business with the Maduro regime, who like their own, systemically abuses human rights.
When I travel across the region, I see dozens of PRC port projects of various shapes and sizes in the works. The PRC is pursuing deep water ports in Jamaica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Argentina and elsewhere. There is an ever-increasing presence of Chinese companies near the Panama Canal and the Colon Free Trade Zone.
These ports are designed to help feed China’s appetite for food and resources, which is doing real harm to the region’s environment. It contributes to deforestation in the Amazon, illegal mining and logging with lax environmental oversight, and overfishing. In fact, we’re in the season when hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels position themselves off the coast of Ecuador, to include the Galapagos Marine Preserve, Peru, Chile and Argentina, dropping their nets and depleting fish from the locals.
One major resource that the PRC seeks in this region is water. With just 8 percent of the global population, Latin America and the Caribbean have 30 percent of the world’s fresh water. In contrast, China has over 18 percent of the global population but only 8 percent of the global fresh water. This helps to explain China’s increasing interest in Latin America and the Caribbean: The region provides much needed water and arable land that can help China feed its population.
Then there’s the People’s Liberation Army’s interest across the region, in education, space, cyber, security cooperation and naval ports. The PRC is setting the stage for future military expansion and presence, just as we have seen in Djibouti.
Our competitive edge is based on our values and culture, but I see this edge slipping.
How should the United States respond to growing Chinese influence in Latin America — economic, diplomatic and military — without seeking confrontation?
We have what the PRC does not — a deep history of friendships and shared values throughout the region. Our strategic asymmetric advantage is our partnerships built to last, based on shared democratic values. This trust is the foundation, but we also must invest in tangible, mutually beneficial security cooperation programs. That means expanding our International Military Education and Training efforts and enhancing our global exercise program. We must meet our partners at the point of their needs, and work with all of them to get after common global threats like transnational criminal organizations, climate change and PRC influence, together.
When I talk to my regional counterparts, I don’t ask them to choose between the U.S. and China. But we do talk about values: free speech, the rule of law, respect for human rights, gender and racial equality. What I do say to my partners is “Where do you want to ultimately be with respect to those values, and how do you think China stacks up on that scale?” Our team at U.S. Southern Command works tirelessly to be the good partners, modeling ethics and professionalism, and our partner nations want to emulate that professionalism.
U.S. activities, including humanitarian assistance donations, noncommissioned officer development programs, human rights training and programs like Women, Peace and Security are all making a difference. A mother finally getting the much-needed medical treatment for her child. Thousands of families who received purified water with the help of a Joint Task Force-Bravo project. Building partner military capacity and combat readiness as part of our joint exercise program. All of these stories prove that our team is providing real results to our partner nations.
All of this goes a long way to build professionalism, resiliency, partnerships, and trust. That deters the PRCs strategic objectives in this region.