SOUTHCOM Commander Warns of Risk of Chinese Investment in South America, Caribbean

March 12, 2024 7:25 PM
Commander of U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Army Gen. Laura Richardson, takes part in a High-Level Security Dialogue (HLSD) between Panama and the United States on Feb. 2, 2024. Panama’s Ministry of Public Security PhotoCOM

China’s ability to flip its big money investments in the Caribbean and South American – ports, 5G telecommunications networks, space infrastructure and clean energy – from civilian to military use is a growing security concern, U.S. Southern Command’s commander told the House Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

“China is exercising our playbook” of being present economically and equipping the United States’ hemispheric neighbors militarily, Army Gen. Laura Richardson told the panel.

“The PRC understands the importance of economics and the intertwined role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in achieving its Chinese Dream – the PRC reclamation of China’s central role in world affairs,” she said in her written testimony.

“For 15 to 20 years, SOUTHCOM has been receiving less than 50 percent [of required] security cooperation money,” she wrote. Richardson called these funds, used for exercises, “more than once a year visits” and equipment, “my Number One lever … to provide counterbalance to the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”

She added: “I don’t need to outspend the PRC to beat them” because “presence matters.”

On the economic side, Richardson noted that 22 of the 31 countries in the command’s area of responsibility have signed onto China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

“We’ve got to be on the field for the tenders and contracts” for these economic development projects, Richardson said.

HASC chair Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) cited the $3.6 billion mega-port to handle giant container cargo shipping at Chancay, Peru, as an example of growing Chinese influence. Richardson, in her written testimony, said Beijing boasts that the port will serve as the “gateway from South America to Asia.”

But the Peru project is not the only one of concern to Rogers. He noted that Beijing, using state-owned enterprises, has invested in 40 port projects “from the Bahamas to the tip of South America” and at both entrances to the Panama Canal.

Economic pressures are on these governments to act quickly, Richardson said. “They’re going to look for whoever has the cash and the loans.”

The lingering effects of COVID on national economies and the impact of criminal gangs smuggling drugs and trafficking humans has worsened living conditions in many parts of the hemisphere, Richardson added.

In the past, migrants seeking entry into the United States – legally or illegally – were most often single men. Now, “families are on the move in unprecedented numbers” because the region once looked upon as the area “to feed and fuel” the world can’t provide for them.

“Families are trying to realize the American dream,” she said. Richardson and several committee members noted that migrants gathered at the southern border not only come from Central and South America and the Caribbean, but also from the Middle East, Africa and China.

In Haiti, self-proclaimed militias and gangs have largely taken control of the country. Rebecca Zimmerman, acting assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs, said the United States has doubled its commitment to $200 million to help pay for Kenya’s assistance to Haitian police to help restore order.

She added that the United States has no plans to send American forces to Haiti, but has increased security around its embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Having assumed command of U.S. Northern Command in February, Air Force Gen. Gregory Guillot said Russia and China pose threats “from multiple vectors in all domains. They both have advanced kinetic and non-kinetic systems above and below nuclear thresholds.”

In his written testimony, he said the Pentagon reports that the “PRC may also be exploring the development of conventionally armed intercontinental-range missile systems that could allow Beijing to strike targets in Alaska and the continental United States without crossing the nuclear threshold. Such systems, if fielded, would further erode strategic stability by challenging our ability to characterize an inbound attack and complicating our decision-making about an appropriate response.”

Specifically, China’s “capabilities are growing rapidly” in nuclear weapons, advanced submarines and hypersonics. During oral and written testimony, Guillot said China “has launched the first two hulls of its new Shang III class of nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines (SSGN). If the PRC arms the Shang III with land-attack cruise missiles, the new SSGNs could provide Beijing a clandestine land-attack option beyond the Indo-Pacific region, potentially holding at risk critical infrastructure in Alaska and the U.S. West Coast. While Beijing’s intent for employing these long-range conventional strike capabilities is not fully known, in a future crisis, the PRC could use these weapons … to threaten or attack our critical defense infrastructure.”

Russia in the last week probed Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone with a strategic bomber and escorts, demonstrating its capabilities to strike from any vector. Guillot said probes like that show the value of investing in over-the-horizon radar and space assets.

American fighters intercepted the Russian aircraft.

Although Russian land forces have suffered heavy losses in personnel and equipment, Guillot said the Kremlin is continuing to spend heavily on strategic forces, like hypersonic glide systems on ICBMs that are designed to evade radars and interceptors and ICBMs that could hit the United States by coming over the South Pole.

The rapid modernization of Russian strategic forces on land and sea and the expanding Chinese arsenal demonstrate the value of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control effort, known as JADC2, to connect sensors, shooters and communications for all the services, he said.

Guillot added that he is conducting a 90-day assessment of the command and will report his findings to Congress.

The Arctic is an area that needs a much closer look, he said when answering a question.

“Fifty-two percent of the area of operations for Northern Command and NORAD is in the Arctic,” Guillot said. He said he would look at moving training currently conducted in the lower 48 states, as well as “special equipment, gear and kit” for operations in the Arctic.

Guillot said if there were a crisis in the Indo-Pacific that required Arctic-trained forces to respond, “the backfill are not necessarily well-trained and equipped” to take over High Latitude operations.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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