U.S. Military Targets Growing Russian and Chinese Influence in Latin America
The Air Force chief of staff pushes back during a visit to Colombia.
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, returning from a trip to Colombia, said over the weekend that the Trump administration is making a push to strengthen alliances across Latin America as part of an effort to counter rising Chinese and Russian influence in the United States’ backyard.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Goldfein said Colombia and other Latin American countries risked being locked out of U.S. and allied operations if they stopped buying military hardware from the United States and turned to other markets instead.
“While there may be other cheap hardware out there that might be available on the market, at some point it becomes really hard to make it connect and share within the system,” Goldfein said by phone Saturday while flying home from Colombia.
His trip was part of a broader administration effort to reinforce alliances across Latin America as the region grapples with a range of security threats, from narcotrafficking and terrorism to Venezuela’s economic collapse and ensuing refugee crisis. During the two-day visit, which followed U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’s own South America tour in August, Goldfein met with Colombia’s minister of defense, commander general, and air force chief, and he spoke with students at the Colombian war college.
“When it comes to China and Russia, we are looking at cooperation where we can and pushing back aggressively where we must,” Goldfein said. “We keep a close eye on their activities globally, but certainly we keep an eye on their activities [in Latin America].”
Underlying the outreach effort, experts say, is U.S. recognition that China and Russia are quietly exerting economic and military influence in Latin America. China is a master at leveraging trade and direct economic investment for geopolitical gains, they say. Driven by a desire to tap into Latin America’s vast oil reserves, as well as to bolster anti-American sentiment, China has invested large sums of money in the region. It has surpassed the United States as the main destination for exports in seven countries in the region. In five of those countries—Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Peru, and Uruguay—China is now the largest export market. It has also been working with Argentina on a space station in Patagonia.
“The Colombians are concerned that the U.S. has been leaving the region behind, and it has created a void, this vacuum to fill,” said Moises Rendon, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He noted Colombia’s dilemma: It “can’t say no to China, because they are providing opportunities and investment, [while] the U.S. is not providing the same types of opportunities.”
Russia, meanwhile, is seen as less of a power player in the region but has sold billions of dollars of weapons to countries across Latin America. Unlike China, which wants to use Latin America’s natural resources for its own economic growth, Russia’s interest in the region is primarily strategic, Rendon said.
Both nations are using these commercial ties to support Latin American regimes that violate human rights and are antagonistic to the United States, particularly Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, with the end goal of undermining America’s influence in the region, analysts said.
“One very important concern for the U.S. government is that the Chinese are propping up [Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s] regime and other nondemocratic leaders like Nicaragua [and] Bolivia,” Rendon said.
The escalation of Chinese influence in Latin America is reflected in the number of nations that have swapped recognition from Taiwan to China, according to Ana Quintana, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation. This group now includes El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.
The goal is not just “sticking it to the Americans,” but also “amplifying their power,” Quintana said, noting the region’s wealth of oil reserves. Both China and Russia “want to be in a position to be a power broker in Latin America.”
The U.S. administration’s approach to countering Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America is rooted in building new alliances and strengthening the ones that already exist. Maintaining strong military-to-military ties is key, Goldfein said.
“There are times when our diplomatic relationships may change based on the political environment, but we are able to maintain a military-to-military relationship and dialogue,” Goldfein said. He stressed his close friendship with Colombia’s Air Force chief, Gen. Carlos Eduardo Bueno, and lauded the country for leading the region in promoting democracy.
“Colombia is really the gold standard for how you take the resources of the country and, through strong leadership and perseverance, you turn a country around and get it on a path toward democracy,” Goldfein said.
Ensuring U.S. and Colombian forces can operate seamlessly together involves not just frequent joint exercises, he said, but also using interoperable equipment. For example, the Colombian Air Force is a world leader in employing light attack aircraft to fight drug traffickers, a practice the U.S. Air Force is hoping to emulate against insurgents in the Middle East. The United States has in recent years provided A-29 Super Tucanos, the same aircraft the Colombian Air Force operates, to the fledgling Afghan Air Force, and it is now looking to buy that platform for its own pilots.
During the visit, Goldfein said, he and Colombian leaders discussed partnership opportunities “to protect the sovereignty of their airspace,” including potentially selling Colombia U.S. military aircraft such as F-16 fighter jets.
Reinforcing U.S. alliances in Latin America is also part of a “layered defense approach” to protecting America’s borders, Goldfein said. One current concern is the crisis of Venezuelan migrants, who are pouring into Colombia at rates of more than 4,000 a day. At the request of the Colombian government, Mattis this fall sent the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship USNS Comfort to Colombia to provide medical care for the migrants.
Another challenge the two air chiefs discussed is a recent spike in cocaine production across Colombia. Goldfein said the United States is exploring how it can help the Colombian government eradicate the coca fields.
“We need to be there for our Latin American counterparts for the good and the bad,” Quintana said. “This is a very critical time, because there is a lot of positives happening in the region.”
Correction, Nov. 21, 2018: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the withdrawal of recognition of Taiwan by El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.