Great Power Competition in the Western Hemisphere

By: Kyle Stramblad
Approximate Reading Time: 25 Minutes

Abstract: The 2017 National Security Strategy states that the United States is in great power competition with China and Russia that spans the world. China and Russia do not acknowledge the Monroe Doctrine’s assertion that the Western Hemisphere is the United States’ unchallenged sphere of influence and have been actively promoting their interests in the region. The following analysis will examine China and Russia’s activities in the Western Hemisphere  in order to paint a picture of the breadth of influence operations that are being undertaken. 

The United States must rebuild relationships with its allies and partners in the Western Hemisphere to mutually safeguard and protect the region. The problem should be framed as a common threat to regional stability and the United States should cooperate with its allies and partners on a peer-to-peer basis. The United States needs to be conscious of its stigma in Latin America as an imperial power that attempts to dictate foreign policy to others. The United States should strive to articulate why it offers the best model for future development and why China and Russia are harmful for the region.

Competing Values: The Monroe Doctrine and 21st Century Great Power Competition

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Figure 1: Monroe Doctrine Political Cartoon by Louis Dalrymple, 1905. 

In February 2018, while touring the region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denounced Chinese and Russian involvement in Latin America and issued a diplomatic warning that harkened back to the tradition of the Monroe Doctrine. Tillerson stated, “Sometimes I think we have forgotten about the importance of the Monroe Doctrine and what it meant to this hemisphere and maintaining those shared values…I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written…Our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers who do not reflect the fundamental values shared in this region.”

Secretary Tillerson argued that partnership with the United States would lead to greater freedom and stability. “The United States approach is based on mutually beneficial goals to help both sides grow, develop and become more prosperous, and do so by respecting international law, prioritizing the interests of our partners, and protecting our values. With the United States, you have a multidimensional partner – one that benefits both sides with engagement to support economic growth, education, innovation, and security.”

In April 2019, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo blamed China and Russia for spreading disorder, fueling corruption, and undermining democracy across the Western Hemisphere. The United States is engaged in a great power competition which will determine the region’s future. This analysis will examine China and Russia’s activities in the Western Hemisphere.

Chinese Influence in the Western Hemisphere

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Figure 2: China in America’s Backyard.

On China’s role in Latin America, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented, “China’s offer always comes at a price – usually in the form of state-led investments, carried out by imported Chinese labor, onerous loans, and unsustainable debt…Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people. China’s state-led model of development is reminiscent of the past. It doesn’t have to be this hemisphere’s future.”

Chinese influence in the Western Hemisphere is staggering. As the world’s second largest economy, it is not surprising that China’s search for the natural resources, required to fuel its economy, would take it to new parts of the world. The concern is a deliberate and coordinated campaign by China and its state-run companies to infiltrate states across the Western Hemisphere in order to influence governmental decision-making by utilizing instruments of national power (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic). In effect, China is challenging United States dominance in the Americas and is encouraging poor governance and corruption in the region.

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Figure 3: China sees Latin America as a “natural extension” of its Belt and Road Initiative.

A quick scan of the region shows that China’s influence in the Western Hemisphere is far-reaching, including: Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America.  China’s interests in these locations vary, but its model for gaining access and exerting influence is well documented. What is common in most cases is China’s lack of respect for the democratic values and human rights, as well as its concerted efforts to undermine these values through various means of influence operations.

 Russian Influence in the Western Hemisphere

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Figure 4: Russian Activities in the Western Hemisphere.

 On Russia’s role in Latin America, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warns, “Russia’s growing presence in the region is alarming as well, as it continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.”

Russian attempts to influence states in the Western Hemisphere date back to the Soviet Union’s efforts to spread communist ideology around the globe. During the Cold War, Moscow promoted Marxist regime change in Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Grenada. The Soviet Union also forged favorable political and economic ties with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. As a result, communism was perceived to be a threat to the United States during the 20th century. Since the end of the Cold War, most of the Western Hemisphere has abandoned communism, with Cuba being the notable exception.

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Figure 5: Russia Resurgent.

Since 2014, Russia observers have been monitoring Russian President Vladimir Putin’s engagement with Latin America leading some to suggest that a new Cold War may be emerging. Russia’s attempt to diversify its foreign policy has led it to seek out partners in Latin America. As a result, the Western Hemisphere is becoming a region of renewed geopolitical rivalry as the United States and Russia seek to extend influence and maintain leadership in the region. Some Russia experts consider Russia’s expanded presence in Latin America to be a calculated response to the growing presence of the United States and NATO in Eastern Europe.

Russia’s primary efforts lie in increased military support for Latin American countries. Russian arms exports to Latin America are worth billions of dollars and the preponderance of these purchases are made by Venezuela. The Russian Navy has held training drills with other left-leaning Latin American countries and Russian bombers have flown training missions to the Caribbean. Meanwhile, Russia has been negotiating the expansion of overseas bases with Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. Alexander Shchetinin, who directs Russia’s Latin America bureau, has dismissed what he calls “an outdated reprisal of the Monroe Doctrine.”

 Awaking to a Threat: Asleep at the Wheel in the Western Hemisphere?

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Figure 6: SOUTHCOM’s Posture Statement on Russia and China (February 2019).

Since its inception, the United States has enjoyed the geographic benefit of being protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. However, despite the benefits of geography, emerging disruptive technologies and globalization, combined with a lack of strategic guidance by the United States following the end of the Cold War, has until recently (2017 NSS & 2018 NDS) left a void of uncertainty in the Western Hemisphere. Since September 11, 2001 the United States has been continuously engaged in 18 years of the Global War on Terrorism while strategic competitors have quietly begun to make inroads into what has traditionally been considered America’s backyard. Whether Russia and China’s activities are opportunistic attempts to fill a void left by a preoccupied United States and gain access to natural resources that benefit their economies, or whether this posturing is calculated Phase 0 preparations for shaping the future operating environment in the Western Hemisphere, only time will tell.

However, what is clear today is that the United States government has awoken to realize that it has been asleep while great power competition has begun with China and Russia. The 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy have both acknowledged this return to great power competition, and now the United States government and the Department of Defense are examining how to operationalize this new strategic guidance in each geographic combatant command. The strategy-to-task operationalization of this guidance should take a whole-of-government approach to reverse the inroads that China and Russia have made in the Western Hemisphere.

It is exceedingly important that the United States remembers that central to this endeavor, will be relationships the United States must rebuild with its allies and partners in the Western Hemisphere to mutually safeguard and protect the region. The problem should be framed as a common threat to regional stability and the United States should cooperate with its allies and partners on a peer-to-peer basis. The United States needs to be conscious of its stigma in Latin America as an imperial power that attempts to dictate foreign policy to others. The United States should strive to articulate why it offers the best model for future development and why China and Russia are harmful for the region.

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Figure 7: China’s Belt and Road Partners in Latin America and the Caribbean 2019.

Providing Context: Notable Sino-Russian Activities in the Western Hemisphere

The following collection of recent news articles and vignettes provide insight into some of the more notable Sino-Russian activities that have been underway throughout the Western Hemisphere, in order to paint a picture of the breadth of influence operations that are being undertaken. A brief synopsis is that China’s influence is pervasive. It has already brought 19 countries and counting into its Belt and Road Initiative and is actively courting Latin American countries which have traditionally supported Taiwan to abandon their ally in order to benefit from economic incentives of Chinese partnership. Russia remains more localized in Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela and is more focused on military weapons sales. Both China and Russia are engaged in widespread influence operations across the Western Hemisphere.

Antigua and Barbuda – China seeks to fill the void left by Western ‘neglect’ in the wake of Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Chinese-funded projects help islanders rebuild as authorities complain that the United States has not done enough to aid in rebuilding.  Antigua and Barbuda became the first country in the eastern Caribbean to sign a memorandum of agreement to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative in June 2018 (South China Morning Post, 15-July-2018).

Argentina – China built a military-run space station in Argentina’s Patagonian region with a 16-story antenna. The remote 200-hectare compound operates with little oversight by the Argentine authorities and the United States is concerned about its potential use for espionage and military activities in the region. The Chinese Patagonia ground station was agreed to by a financially vulnerable government a decade ago and is another example of predatory Chinese dealings that undermine the sovereignty of host nations (Reuters, 31-January-2019).

Barbados – China and Barbados are cooperating on innovative development using the Belt and Road Initiative in February 2018 as an effort to build a community with a shared future. This future is not only for Chinese and Caribbean people but also for all mankind and to create a more prosperous and more harmonious tomorrow (Barbados Today, 29-December-2018).

Belize – Chinese immigrants constitute just about 1% of Belize’s population of 350,000. Nonetheless, this community owns and controls large swathes of land and 10% of Belize’s GDP. In a relatively short period, the Chinese have managed to gain control of the food, beverage, and retail sectors of Belize’s economy (Amandala “Belize’s Leading Newspaper,” 26-August-2017).

Bolivia – Russia-Bolivia relations revolve around energy initiatives and weapons sales (National Interest, 12-November-2017). Meanwhile, China has become the principal funder and contractor for President Evo Morales’ state-led infrastructure development project via the Belt and Road Initiative in June 2018. Several Bolivian NGOs assert that China’s relationship with Bolivia primarily serves to enhance Chinese expansionist interests (NACLA, 10-August-2017).

Brazil – China is Brazil’s largest trade partner and top importer of soy and beef. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is presently trying to avoid antagonizing Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been invited to attend the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Brazil in November 2019. China and Brazil’s most serious disagreement is over the Venezuelan crisis. While Brazil wants incumbent President Nicolás Maduro out of office, China has emphasized its policy of non-interference (Bloomberg, 28-March-2019).

Canada – The concentration of Chinese immigrants in cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal has implications on foreign policy as China uses diaspora politics and transnational business networks to influence international relations. China has undertaken a coordinated campaign known as the ‘united front’ to influence events in foreign countries, including Canada. China has a strategy for influencing public opinion and political opinion in other countries on issues that are important to China, which includes mobilizing Chinese students and tapping the diaspora in Canada. This presents a form of interference in Canadian affairs (Financial Post, 8-December-2017). Additionally, Canada’s public safety minister announced that the country would not be deterred by Chinese pressure after China threatened reprisals if Huawei was banned from supplying equipment for 5G networks (ABC News, 18-January-2019).

Chile – China is interested in gaining access to Chile’s natural resources such as lithium, a key component in batteries. Until recently, China’s investment in Chile was limited, despite robust trade. Chile is the world’s top copper producer and China is the biggest buyer. Chile has joined many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in signing China’s Belt and Road Initiative in November 2018 (Financial Times, 25-February-2019).

Colombia – China is Colombia’s second largest trading partner worldwide in terms of export sales (following the United States), but Colombia has received relatively little investment in comparison to other countries in the region such as Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela (The Bogota Post, 20-March-2018). Chinese state-owned companies have slowly been moving into Colombia’s economy, mainly in the oil and infrastructure industries. Many Colombians claim Chinese people have snatched up a large share of the market,  forcing them to bankruptcy. Chinese-owned stores tend to sell products at lower prices. Shop owners admit this openly and argue that it makes it difficult to compete (Panama Post, 3-June-2016).

Costa Rica – Costa Rica signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in September 2018. Costa Rica was the first Central American country to break ties with Taiwan and establish relations with China. According to the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry, the agreement will promote the construction of roads, railways, civil aviation, harbors, energy, and telecommunications, as well as expanded trade and investment (Tico Times, 5-September-2018).

Cuba – Cuba signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in November 2018 in order to secure economic support. With the implosion of Venezuela, Cuba lost its access to cheap oil exports which it received in exchange for providing security forces and doctors. Russia sees Cuba as an opportunity to further its claim as a global power. Since the election of President Donald Trump, the prospects for United States re-engagement with Cuba have diminished, especially in light of sonic attacks on diplomats in Cuba (National Interest, 27-November-2018).

Dominica – Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit defended Dominica’s relationship with China and brushed aside suggestions that the island is being used by Beijing to advance its global influence. The two countries signed the Belt and Road Initiative in October 2018, which China said underscores its relationship that was established when the island broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister said that rather than seeking to criticize Beijing, Washington should be providing more aid to developing countries rather than spending billions on useless wars. Those opposed to China’s deepening influence in the hemisphere need to talk less and put some development assistance on the table (St. Lucia News, 30-October-2018).

Dominican Republic – The Dominican Republic signed Belt and Road Initiative in September 2018 and is China’s biggest trade partner in the Caribbean. China opened a new embassy in the Dominican Republic after it cut ties with Taiwan. Taiwan, which China claims as its own, now has formal relations with only 17 countries worldwide. The United States has warned that China is offering economic incentives in a bid for domination (Reuters, 21-September-2018).

Ecuador – Ecuador faces a huge budget deficit due in part to Chinese loans. Former President Rafael Correa wanted to fast-track development projects, so he borrowed billions of dollars from China. The loans have come back to haunt his successor, President Lenin Moreno, who had to seek more flexible terms from China. The Chinese loans financed roads, dams, schools, and office buildings during Correa’s presidency. Ecuador is one of several Latin American countries that benefited from China’s lending. (LA Times, 10-December-2018). Ecuador has also signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in December 2018 (GB Times, 13-December-2018).

El Salvador – El Salvador broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan to establish relations with China and joined the Belt and Road Initiative in November 2018. China then pledged US$150 million to El Salvador. President-elect Nayib Bukele has been critical of the benefits that El Salvador received after establishing diplomatic relations with China saying, “China does not play by the rules; they do not respect the rules…They develop projects that are not feasible, leaving countries with huge debt that cannot be paid back and use that as financial leverage…They are not a democracy, but they intervene in your democracy (Dialogo Chino, 14-March-2019).”

Greenland – In Greenland, China attempted to build three airports that would have given it Arctic access. When word of the deal reached former-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, he called on Denmark – whose kingdom includes Greenland as a self-governing territory – and reiterated that Beijing must not be allowed to militarize the Arctic (Wall Street Journal, 10-February-2019).

Grenada – Grenada signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in September 2018 to bring economic benefits to the people of both countries and promote international cooperation. Decades after being invaded by United States troops, Grenada joins five other Caribbean countries including Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Guyana, and Suriname by signing the Belt and Road Initiative (The Grenada Informer, 20-September-2018).

Guatemala – Guatemala reaffirmed its government’s commitment to diplomatic relations with Taiwan after El Salvador announced that it was switching allegiance to China. In August 2018, Taiwan announced the severing of ties with El Salvador, after which El Salvador declared it was establishing formal relations with China. The loyalty switch has been attributed to China’s campaign of luring away Taiwan’s allies with promises of financial assistance and investment. Many scholars and former diplomats have warned that more Central America allies, to include Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala could be next (Focus Taiwan, 27-August-2018).

Guyana – In July 2018 Guyana signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and will become a key oil producer for China. Guyana is also a key logistical link in regional trade – China is investing in construction work for the Guyana-Brazil transport link and a deep-water port project for the northern coast. Chinese firms have developed infrastructure projects in Guyana before, but the port and road project will be the largest yet. The Guyana road link will cut transport times to northern Brazil, China’s biggest trading partner in the region, by providing a faster route to the Panama Canal (Dialogo China, 28-January-2019).

Haiti – Haiti has long struggled to attract foreign investments. The country is in a rare position of strength as China and Taiwan engage in a global tug-of-war over diplomatic allegiances. For now, Haiti is signaling that it is aligned with Taiwan. Haiti observers say the Dominican-Haitian border has become the new line of demarcation in the China-Taiwan battle in the region and wonder if Haiti will use its leverage to negotiate additional assistance from the United States. The island of Hispaniola has become ‘ground zero’ for the battle between China and Taiwan for diplomatic recognition (Miami Herald, 25-May-2018).

Honduras – The president of Honduras said he welcomed China’s growing diplomatic presence in the region as an “opportunity.”  Prior United States commitments to increase investment in Honduras have been scaled back under the Trump administration. Meanwhile, China is strengthening ties in Central America. In August 2018, El Salvador broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China, citing economic reasons.  Honduras is one of a dwindling number of countries that still has formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan (Reuters, 24-September-2018).

Jamaica – In April 2019, Jamaica signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese companies announced major investments underway. Chinese interest in Jamaica as an economic base follows a wide range of other Chinese projects being discussed. Jamaica announced that it decided to use Chinese loans to upgrade its road network (Jamaica Observer, 21-April-2019).

Mexico – Mexico reminded the United States that China is a newcomer in the region and is seeking investments to develop Central America via a “Marshall Plan” that addresses the root causes of migration. Mexico envisions a $30 billion initiative for the region that will welcome migrants into Mexico with visas, health care, and employment. Mexico hopes that the perceived threat of China’s growing presence in the region can be used as leverage to bring the United States on board with its plan. The Mexican strategy relies on the United States’ concerns about China’s expanding influence in the region. This reflects a growing sense in Mexico that it cannot take cooperation with the United States for granted (NY Times, 17-December-2018).

Nicaragua – Russia actively provides political support and military, energy, and technological investments to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. The ongoing Nicaraguan crisis has left Ortega isolated internationally. Russia is one of the few remaining partners that doesn’t care about the civilian death toll (Dialogo Americas, 17-January-2019). Russia has sold military platforms to Nicaragua in recent years. After the fifty T-72 battle tanks, the Nicaraguan press reported that Ortega’s government had bought four speedboats, two missile warships, and at least one combat plane from Russia (National Interest, 25-September-2017). Nicaragua is giving Russia a stronghold to expand its intelligence and interference capacity near the United States.  Russian facilities could have dual use capabilities, particularly for electronic espionage aimed at the United States. Nicaragua could be used for espionage goals, such as intercepting Internet traffic in the ARCOS 1 fiber-optic cable that runs from Miami down the Caribbean coast of Central America. Additionally, the Russian satellite site on the lip of the Laguna de Nejapa crater could serve as a spy facility, even though Nicaraguan officials have said it will be used for GLONASS, Russia’s equivalent of GPS (Confidencial, 16-April-2017).

Panama – Panama signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative after breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 2017. Washington claimed that Beijing is offering economic incentives in order to dominate countries in the region. In December 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Panama and signed cooperation agreements on trade, infrastructure, banking, tourism, and other areas (Reuters, 3 December 2018). Panama has become a flashpoint in the global rivalry between Beijing and Washington, as the US struggles to develop a coherent strategy to deal with China’s rising influence in Latin America (The Guardian, 28-November-2018). Washington allowed China to establish a foothold alongside a waterway essential to United States commerce and national security. The vast majority of commercial products and farm commodities pass through the Panama Canal. Access is vital for military vessels, including nuclear submarines. Few waterways carry higher strategic importance, which is why the United States militarily occupied Panama for nearly a century. China recognized that strategic importance long ago, but the United States is only now waking up to what it might have lost. Chinese companies now operate ports at both the Pacific and Caribbean ends of the canal. Another reportedly is planning to build a cruise-ship port at a former Air Force base. The site also will sit atop a major telecommunications line — perfect for monitoring international phone and internet traffic (St. Louis Post, 6-January-2019).

Paraguay – Paraguay soybeans are flowing to China (the world’s top buyer) even though the two countries have no diplomatic relations and no plans to establish them. Paraguay is the world’s fourth-largest soybean exporter and has a close relationship with Taiwan. Paraguay’s full diplomatic relations with Taiwan precludes having the same relationship with China. China has been whittling away at Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, leaving Paraguay one of the few remaining allies in Latin America. (Reuters, 20-April-2018).

Peru – Peru will sign the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (April 2019) in the coming days, despite warnings from the United States about China’s influence in Latin America. The deal will make Peru the latest Latin American nation to join China’s flagship infrastructure program, and underscoring how countries are being drawn to China by the promise of investment. The United States has repeatedly warned about the risks of Chinese predatory lending. China overtook the United States as Peru’s largest trade partner years ago, thanks largely to its imports of copper and other minerals from the South American country. Chinese investments in Peru remain focused on mining, but have broadened to also include infrastructure (Reuters, 25-April-2019).

Saint Kitts – Chinese businesses are cropping up throughout the Caribbean, bringing with them concerns ranging from who they employ to whether they adhere to local standards and laws. Chinese immigrants usually open family-run businesses where they employ other workers from China, instead of locals. The Caribbean is witnessing a silent flood of new Chinese immigrants that is showing no signs of abating. Thousands of Chinese migrants are coming to the Caribbean, setting up small businesses and supermarkets, and reshaping the economies and societies of a region traditionally closer to the West and Taiwan. Dominica, St. Vincent, St. Kitts and Antigua — each with populations ranging from 16,000 to just over 100,000 — now host between 200 and 300 Chinese migrants. In St. Kitts, the Chinese “have crowded out the local small retail outlets completely.” Chinese businesses sell “inferior goods…bring in Chinese workers, and they pay below the minimum wage here, so locals are deprived of jobs (OZY, 9-October-2018).”

Saint Lucia – In 2007, St. Lucia severed its relations with China and restored ties with Taiwan. At that time, China called the move “brutal interference in China’s internal affairs.” One of the smallest countries in the world had effectively made an enemy out of one of the largest (NY Times, 2-May-2007). In 2016, St. Lucia’s government signed an agreement to build the island’s first internationally targeted, integrated development — a project worth $2.6 billion designed to attract Chinese tourists and investment (St. Lucia News, 31-July-2016). In 2018, Saint Lucia removed visa requirements for Chinese citizens (Investment Migration Insider, 17-July-2018).

Saint Vincent – Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says that St. Vincent and the Grenadines cherishes its bond with Taiwan and has no intention of abandoning diplomatic ties, even under pressure from China. Gonsalves acknowledged that St. Vincent is seeing greater involvement by mainland Chinese in trade and in the restaurant industry (Nikkei Asian Review, 7-August-2018).

Suriname – Suriname signed the Belt and Road Initiative in September 2018. China appreciates that Suriname supports the one-China policy. Suriname will cooperate with China in trade, investment, forestry, agriculture, fishery and cultural exchanges. Suriname also firmly supports efforts to strengthen the relations between China and CARICOM (Xinhua, 24-September-2018).

The Bahamas – The Government of The Bahamas signed a $12 million bilateral agreement with China in February 2019, signaling a commitment from China to provide funds for development projects in the country (Eluthera News, 21-February-2019). The United States is monitoring China’s moves in the Bahamas. As a result of their interference in the Baha Mar project, China has been able to create an unfair advantage that favored Chinese companies in the region. Contracts would have had serious American bidders if there had been a level playing field. Instead, the Bahamian government did Beijing’s bidding. In May 2017, the Bahamian people rejected their corrupt government and threw it out of office. Since China became involved in Baha Mar, the Bahamas saw its credit rating sink. The United States is monitoring the situation in the Bahamas. (Business Insider, 5-December-2017).

Trinidad and Tobago – Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost nation in the Caribbean, signed the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in May 2018. The two countries will promote bilateral ties under the framework and enhance cooperation on policy, facilities, connectivity, trade, finance, and communication. Trinidad and Tobago is China’s largest trade partner in the English-speaking Caribbean region (GB Times, 15-May-2018).

United States – Chinese influence within the United States is well documented. In October 2018, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University published a report on Chinese Influence and American Interests, which analyzes the growing challenge posed by China’s influence-seeking activities in the United States across a number of important sectors of American public life. However, these influence activities are not confined to the United States. Indeed, they appear in different forms and to different degrees in a large number of other democratic societies around the world. Russian influence within the United States is equally well documented. In March 2019, the Mueller Report on The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election confirmed that the Russian government, through various proxies, carried out a multi-pronged campaign against the United States. Both reports make it clear that China and Russia have been actively carrying out influence operations against the United States.

Uruguay – Uruguay was the first country in the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) to sign the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in August 2018. The regional bloc currently has four full members, namely Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Chinese and Uruguayan economies are highly complementary and have great potential for cooperation. It is hoped that both sides will work together to deepen bilateral cooperation in such fields as agriculture, infrastructure, industrial capacity and investment (Xinhua, 24-March-2019).

Venezuela – Perhaps the most well-known case of Sino-Russian activity in Latin America is the ongoing support being provided to President Nicholás Maduro in Venezuela. The scope of Chinese and Russian influence and activities in Venezuela is the most extreme case study currently available in the region and clearly demonstrates the dangers of allowing foreign powers to support anti-democratic governance, backward economic policies, and human rights violations in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela joined the Belt and Road Initiative in September 2018. As Venezuela implodes, most of the Western Hemisphere and Europe have formally recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state (CNN, 29-January-2019). The Pentagon has been developing military options for Venezuela aimed at deterring Russian and Chinese influence in the region, but is stopping short of kinetic military actions. There are a range of whole-of-government and multi-domain deterrence options which can be enacted by the Pentagon and SOUTHCOM in order to operationalize United States strategic guidance and more effectively compete with China and Russia in the Western Hemisphere.


This analysis examines China and Russia’s involvement in the Western Hemisphere in order to raise situational awareness of growing foreign influence at work. The United States has been slow to counter Russia’s “hybrid/irregular warfare” techniques and slow to respond to China’s “gray-zone tactics” that stop short of traditional military action. Now China and Russia are operating in the United States’ backyard. The United States must develop a sense of urgency and begin to anticipate, adapt, and respond to the emerging threat.

The United States has begun to view China and Russia’s engagement in the Western Hemisphere with more suspicion. China and Russia have been actively seeking to influence countries through state-led investments and loans which are characterized as predatory economic activities. China and Russia have been expanding their influence in the hemisphere at the expense of United States interests and their investments in the region can be seen as Phase 0 preparations to enhance their global operational posture.

The United States has an obligation to resist foreign great power encroachment and interference in Inter-American affairs. Standing up to China and Russia will serve to safeguard the shared and foundational principles that all peoples in the Americas have in common.

Kyle “Jäger” Stramblad is an Academic Instructor in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. Email:

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

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One thought on “Great Power Competition in the Western Hemisphere

  • October 1, 2019 at 8:10 am

    Kyle, an excellent overview of Chinese influence in our hemisphere. With the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the Vancouver airport on the request of the US Justice Department and the subsequent massive economic retaliation by the Chinese government in curtailing Canadian exports, there should be no illusions by Canadians regarding the Chinese government. However, actions by the current US administration – such as putting tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel under a national security provision – make it difficult for the Canadian government to partner with the US, to the extent that they might have done in the past.


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