China and transnational criminal organizations are the greatest threats to US interests in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to Admiral Craig Faller, the commander of US Southern Command.
On Wednesday, Admiral Faller testified before the House Armed Services Committee alongside General Glen D. VanHerck, the commander of US Northern Command, which is responsible for the US, Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas.
In his testimony, Admiral Faller noted that, in the eyes of the US military, "China is the number one strategic threat of the 21st century."
"The Chinese Community Party, with its insidious, corrosive and corrupt influence, seeks global dominance," he said. "Our strategic approach to China must also be global."
In Latin America, Admiral Faller said, China has been involved in more than 40 port deals, has offered significant financial loans to Latin American countries and has been involved in illegal and unreported fishing, "with little regard for human rights, the environment or the rule of law."
Additionally, Faller said that China's "aggressive" moves in the region have seen the Chinese government increase their influence in the information technology, as well as cyber and information technology sectors, as well give tens of millions of dollars' worth of gifts and ramp up training exchanges with Latin American militaries.
The commanders both said that Chinese influence in the region - as well as that of Russia and transactional criminal organizations - has been exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
"Underpinning those national security threats is growing fragility in the region," he said. "Covid-19 has hit the region hard. The effects of the pandemic will alter the hemisphere for years to come."
As an example, Admiral Faller noted that China has turned to "heavy-handed vaccine diplomacy" and is using vaccines to "leverage a shift for better deals for 5G and Huawei."
In March, the New York Times reported that China was able to use vaccines to change the Jair Bolsonaro administration's mind with regards to a potential ban on allowing Huawei to help build Brazil's 5G network.
The Brazilian government later announced that Huawei would be allowed to supply the equipment. "We've got to come forward with positive, proactive results for these countries to help them," Admiral Faller said.
Just last week, Faller traveled to Uruguay and Argentina, where Southern Command donated three military field hospitals for Covid-19 patients, as well as protective equipment, medical supplies and a variety of monitoring and screening tools.
Both Admiral Faller and General VanHerck also noted that helping Latin American governments - particularly those of Central America - can help address issues that the US faces at the border with Mexico.
"We have a national security imperative on our southern border. There's a perception that folks can come here and bring their families. We need to approach this from a national security imperative."
"They're a fantastic partner. I'm encouraged by what I heard the President announce with regards to additional 10,000 folks from the Mexican military to help us get after this problem," he said.
Admiral Faller, for his part, said that there "are strong push factors for people of the region to head north."
"There's a crisis of insecurity that's driving people to find security elsewhere. We're never going to interdict our way out of this. We must model the networks and take a network approach," he said. "There needs to be a long-view approach to Central America."
On Tuesday, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez and Department of State Acting Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung were in Argentina, where they are understood to have advised the Argentine government to be "prudent" about relations with China, particularly with regards to 5G technologies.
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