In Latin America, the U.S. Is Getting Competition With China All Wrong

In Latin America, the U.S. Is Getting Competition With China All Wrong
President Joe Biden listens at a meeting with then-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during the Summit of the Americas, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles (AP photo by Evan Vucci).

Back in 2006, Gen. Bantz Craddock—at the time the commanding officer of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, in charge of operations in Latin America and the Caribbean—testified to Congress about Washington’s military priorities in the region. Concerns about “radical Islamic groups,” including al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah, operating in Latin America featured prominently and early in his statement. A single paragraph about China made an appearance on page 26, and there was no mention of Russia.

Last month, when Gen. Laura Richardson, SOUTHCOM’s current commanding officer, presented a posture statement to the U.S. Congress, there wasn’t a single mention of al-Qaida, ISIS, Hezbollah or any other Islamist terrorist group. Instead, the document, which is supposed to be about Latin America, begins by discussing “Strategic Competition with the People’s Republic of China – A Decisive Decade.” The question of how U.S. policy in the region relates to China is woven throughout the document. Additionally, an entire section is dedicated to the challenge of countering Russia’s influence in the region.

Though it does an injustice to the region, which warrants engagement for its own sake, U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean is always going to be shaped by Washington’s global concern of the moment. Sometimes the only way for U.S. policymakers to call Washington’s attention to Western Hemisphere affairs is to highlight how they overlap with whatever else policymakers are panicking about elsewhere around the world. It was true throughout the Cold War. It happened during the Global War on Terrorism. And it remains true as Washington debates whether the U.S. has entered a second Cold War against China.

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