On July 9th, Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of US Southern Command testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities regarding implementation of the National Defense Strategy in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility.
According to Faller, the most “disturbing insight” he could provide was the expansion of the access and influence of External State Actors (ESAs)—China, Russia, and to a lesser extent, Iran, and North Korea in the Western hemisphere.
“Each actor engages in a wide array of concerning, potentially destabilizing activities, blurring the lines of what constitutes a traditional “military threat” through economic coercion, the systematic stealing of technology, pernicious disinformation campaigns, and malicious cyber activity. With every inroad they make, they gain additional opportunities to interfere with our security relationships, undermine our efforts to reinforce international norms, and potentially hold our interests at risk.”
As expected, and as per the National Defense Strategy, the most significant issue which the US Department of Defense faces is interstate strategic competition with China and Russia.
This, in Latin America, was further exacerbated by a competition between legitimate governance and illegitimate power wielded by transnational criminal organizations and violent extremist organizations.
“These groups threaten citizen safety, regional security, and the national security of the United States and our allies and partners.”
Notably, apart from providing drugs, and illegal migrants, to the US, they also provide a “fertile ground” for ESAs.
“We see this most acutely in Venezuela, where Russia contributes to propping up the corrupt Maduro regime in return for increased access and leverage, but this practice is widespread. Enormous sums of Chinese cash, coupled with murky conditions on loans and business deals, have the potential to exacerbate the region’s corruption problem.”
According to Admiral Craig S. Faller, the Chinese and Russian strategies differ in the region – while China appears to be pursuing a long-term change of the status quo and establishing its influence, Russia is, in contrast, attempting to be a sort of “spoiler” that aims to undermine US interest and influence in the immediate term.
The following are excerpts from Admiral Faller’s testimony:
“China poses a significant long-term threat. While the military problems it poses are most acute in the Indo-Pacific region, China has nonetheless turned its attention to the Western Hemisphere, quietly accumulating unprecedented levels of influence and leverage.”
It does so in several ways:
- Economic engagement: China’s increasing access is enabled by economics. In Venezuela, in Feller’s words “it is the single largest creditor of the Maduro regime, saddling the Venezuelan people with more than $60 billion in debt and providing financial lifelines that have helped keep Maduro in power.”
- Access: On the maritime front, China has significantly increased its naval deployments to the region, increasing its regional port calls by 70% over the last five years. Hong Kong-based company Hutchison Whampoa operates ports on either end of the Panama Canal, and the Chinese government has aggressively invested in Panama’s infrastructure, security, and telecommunications systems.
- Data Protection: China’s telecommunications investments and access to space tracking facilities in the hemisphere place military operations, intellectual property, and private data at risk. Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE have aggressively penetrated the region with telecommunication projects in 16 countries, providing the backbone of commercial and government communication systems for most of the region. As we’ve seen elsewhere, Huawei’s 5G systems presents significant national security concerns.
- Surveillance technology and authoritarian systems: China is increasing sales of its surveillance technology through its “Smart and Safe Cities” initiative.
“What seems like a good idea—technology to help improve safety in crime-ridden areas, for example—may come with substantial hidden costs. Citizens living in democracies in the Western Hemisphere could potentially have their entire digital identity under the surveillance of an authoritarian government.”
- Security Cooperation: China uses weapons sales and donations and security services’ training (similar to our IMET program) to improve security cooperation and offer an alternative to U.S. military training. It has donated equipment to our partners in the region and provided anti-riot gear the Maduro regime uses to suppress protests in Venezuela.
Most significantly, “China’s “no strings attached” approach to security cooperation and economic relationships presents a challenge to Inter-American values of democracy, sovereignty, human rights, and the rule of law. Unlike the United States and our allies, the Chinese government places no demands on their partners to implement governance reforms, protect human rights, strengthen institutional accountability, or play by the established rules.”
Meaning that, US democracy is threatened by China selling arms and weapons to countries, without blackmailing them pre- and post-purchase.
- Sovereignty threats: China undercuts regional sovereignty and international norms through the widespread practice of illegal fishing in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of countries such as Argentina, Ecuador, and Chile.
“In contrast to China’s long-term strategic approach, Russia seeks to be more of a “spoiler” in the region by attempting to disrupt or undermine U.S. engagement. Russia seeks to sow disunity and distrust, propping up autocratic regimes in Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which are counter to democracy and U.S. interests.”
It does that in several ways:
- Disinformation: The ones to blame, as it has been the narrative for a while are RT and Sputnik, who create a “fog of falsehood” aimed at disorienting audiences. “These state-run media outlets allow Russia to discredit, slant, or outright fabricate stories about the United States, our partners and allies, and our role in the region.”
- Shows of Force: Russia’s deployment of two nuclear capable bombers to the Western Hemisphere last year, and its most recent deployment of its most advanced warship (an Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate) are intended as shows of force to the United States. But this show of force is not only aimed at the region and the US, but also to the internal “audience” to, as per the usually narrative, shift focus from internal issues and “endemic corruption.”
- Security Cooperation: Since 2009, Russia has sold nearly $9 billion in military equipment to Venezuela, including combat aircraft, tanks and Surface-to-Air-Missile systems (SAMS). In March, Russia inaugurated a helicopter training center that can train up to 300 Venezuelans on Russian-made helicopters.
- Support to authoritarianism: The Cubans and the Russians remain the main foreign supporters of the Maduro regime, with both malign actors providing security advisers and Cuba embedding numerous personnel in Venezuela’s armed forces and intelligence services. It also has improving relations with both Cuba and Nicaragua, in addition to Venezuela.
As Faller mentioned both Iran and North Korea are threats, but less significant ones.
“Iran remains the most significant state sponsor of terrorism around the world. Iran has looked to reenergize its outreach in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years. The Iranian Threat Network, to include Lebanese Hezbollah, maintains an established logistical, facilitating, fundraising and operational presence in this region that can be quickly leveraged with little or no warning in a contingency.”
Separately, North Korea also allegedly has a small presence in the region and can use it to collect intelligence or conduct contingency planning.
“Given its efforts to generate revenue and history of working with supporters like Cuba to circumvent sanctions, North Korea is likely engaged in some form of illicit activity in Latin America.”
To counter these ESAs, the US has to act in three directions:
- Engagements and presence: “We have to be on the playing field to compete.” Key leader engagements, high-profile visits, multinational exercises with visible U.S. presence, and our wide array of security cooperation, training, and capacity-building demonstrate meaningful U.S. commitment. This isn’t simply a military venture; the entire US government needs to take part.
- Information & intelligence sharing: The US is increasing cooperation with partners to better understand, expose, and counter the malign activities of Russia, China, Iran, and their authoritarian allies. It is further working more closely with other U.S. combatant commands and the Joint Staff to ensure that globally integrated plans and operations are informed by threats and opportunities in the Western hemisphere.
- Education and training: This includes reinforcing and improving human rights, especially “ in light of Russia and China’s own disregard for human rights.” According to Faller, “education and training for partner nation personnel facilitate mutual understanding of our values, doctrine, and cultures, while building life-long friendships that enable strong partnerships despite political shifts or changeovers.”
“While China and Russia have made inroads in equipment sales, our partners still prefer U.S. equipment, which offers the “total package” approach that includes training, maintenance, and sustainment.”
In conclusion, Faller said that the ESAs offer many challenges, many of which aren’t harmless, “but the United States takes on the hard challenges—helping our partners develop leaders, agencies, and institutions.”
Finally, the continuous investments, and more than likely continuous propaganda also assist in the propagation of the established order in the Western hemisphere.
“The right, focused and modest investments in this hemisphere yield a solid rate of return for the United States, in the form of capable partners that contribute to our shared security, and reduced opportunities for inroads by External State Actors.”
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