Senior US generals issued stark warnings to lawmakers about what they described as an “aggressive” expansion of Chinese influence in South America and the Caribbean encroaching on American interests in the region.
“The [People’s Republic of China] has the capability and intent to eschew international norms, advance its brand of authoritarianism, and amass power and influence at the expense of these democracies,” Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of US Southern Command, said on Wednesday. “The PRC has expanded its ability to extract resources, establish port, manipulate governments through predatory investment practices, and build potential dual-use space facilities — the most space facilities in any combatant command region.”
Indeed, Richardson and Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that China’s expansion has included increased work on the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive international infrastructure project that seeks to expand Chinese influence around the world, as well as “economic coercion” in the Bahamas and “investment” on South American projects.
“We’ve got to pay more attention to this region,” Richardson said. “The proximity matters. They are on the 20-yard line of our homeland. We are in a neighborhood, these are our neighbors, and we have got to pay attention to them.”
American officials have voiced similar concerns about Chinese activities in other regions of the world including Africa as Beijing looks to compete with Washington not just militarily but also economically and in terms of soft power.
In the Caribbean, China is “very aggressive” in the Bahamas, VanHerck said, where they have built the largest embassy in the world complete with an ambassador who “uses the information space to undermine us each and every day.”
He added that the US has not had a permanent ambassador to the Bahamas since 2011, and appointing one would “vastly help.”
VanHerck also noted that there is “significant” investment from China in Mexico, and that 80% of Mexico’s telecommunications is provided by Chinese companies.
Richardson added that while the US also has a “lot of investment” in South America, the US does not advertise it enough. And while many of those countries will seek contracts for big projects, she said, they only see “PRC and Chinese bidders,” which makes them feel they’ve “got no choice” but to work with China.
At the same time, however, Richardson said China’s investments do not actually benefit countries in the region and claimed Beijing is “taking advantage” of South American nations by pushing them into a “debt trap associated with the multiple loans” they provide.
“They don’t invest in the country, the extract … they bring their own workers, Chinese laborers, to the country and build these high-rise apartments. So the investing, you don’t see the investment in the country,” she said.
The hearing comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China, following the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina last month, and reports that China is considering assisting Russia in its war against Ukraine.
Chinese officials have denied claims that they are considering providing lethal military aid to Russia, but US officials have maintained that China would face “real costs” if they went forward with the support.
China has also denied that the balloon shot down off the US coast into the Atlantic Ocean was a surveillance balloon. But on Wednesday, VanHerck said the event displayed “one of the ways our competitors target us each and every day.”
“Candidly, the internal discord of this event just showed one of the ways our competitors target us each and every day in the information space,” VanHerck said, “and they’re becoming increasingly adept at driving wedges between the American people.”