How Will Trump Deal with China’s Rise in Latin America?
While the Pentagon and President Donald Trump were planning a cruise missile attack on Syria last week, another member of the U.S. military command was calmly appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Although the commander of the U.S. Southern Command rarely receives much public attention, Admiral Kurt W Tidd’s remarks are worth noting for three insights into the Trump administration’s still-evolving policy toward Latin America.
Tidd got straight to the point, identifying China as a strategic threat to the U.S. just days before the Mar-a-Lago Sino-U.S. presidential summit. Classification of Iran and even Russia as potential serious security threats is not particularly new. But the inclusion of China in the same group, and the use of stark language, came as a surprise.
Tidd grouped all three countries together when he said: “Their vision for an alternative international order poses a challenge to every nation that values non-aggression, rule of law, and respect for human rights.” The embedded idea that there is a fundamental symphony between Chinese attitudes and those of Russia and Iran – likely a surprise to Beijing – was put in a strategic context that would seem to cast any engagement with these three countries as a potential security threat to the U.S. Tidd’s warning to the Senate committee about Chinese, Russian and Iranian engagement in the Americas was stark. “Some of what they are doing – while not a direct military threat – does warrant examination. Even seemingly benign activities can be used to build malign influence,” he said.
The second insight was a renewed attempt to frame relations with Latin America and the Caribbean through the lens of terrorism, with the added Trumpian emphasis on illegal immigration. Tidd discussed the idea of threat networks, arguing that the routes used to smuggle goods and people into the U.S. pose an additional threat beyond merely narcotics or cheap undocumented labor. The risk, Tidd said, is that “terrorist organizations will exploit criminal capabilities or human smuggling routes to enter the United States.” He presented this issue as being more serious given repeated attempts by groups such as ISIS to radicalize disaffected communities in Latin America and the Caribbean, which has been a slowly rising problem in countries such as Trinidad and Tobago.
These first two insights will likely create a measure of concern in Latin America. The region’s growing trading partner, China, is being cast as a strategic threat by the indisputable hemispheric hegemon. This adds to the perennial Pentagon security concerns about the illicit flows of goods and contraband from the Americas. Although Tidd may have been making a case for a series of concrete requests – for example, funding to maintain interagency intelligence networks and the sustained Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force necessary for border protection and smuggler interdiction – it’s not hard to see how such comments could feed a tweet first, ask questions later approach to presidential diplomacy, carrying with it the potential for major headaches for regional leaders.
However, the third insight in Tidd’s remarks is more hopeful, and seems to look for ways to actively avoid public spats built on misunderstandings and precipitous judgments. The impression from the testimony is that military planners see little need or reason for a confrontational approach to the Americas. Indeed, Tidd is clear that conflict could be counterproductive and would actually make protecting US security interests more difficult and costly.
Throughout his opening remarks, Tidd focused on the success that has come through partnerships between the U.S. and Latin American countries working to advance shared security goals. Referring specifically to the region, he observed that “these partnerships – based on shared values, mutual respect, and principled U.S. and regional leadership – ensure our hemisphere remains a beacon of peace and prosperity.”
Besides the clear acknowledgment of shared values in the Americas, the key addition to otherwise typical U.S. rhetoric is the phrase “regional leadership.” It echoes former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013 declaration that the Monroe Doctrine is dead, and points directly to the idea of mutual respect. To emphasize this point, Tidd referred to the growing crisis in Venezuela and a sense that events there may result in a strong regionally-led response, not U.S. intervention. Indeed, the phrasing he used in reference to a range of challenges in the hemisphere repeatedly acknowledged the intra-Latin American capacity to deal with these disruptions internally.
Tidd’s argument to the Senate Committee was that strong regional “security partnerships help create a layered defense of our homeland by keeping our shared home stable and secure.” The plea was a blunt call to give Southcom the resources it needs to collaboratively protect the homeland.
The takeaway for Latin America is somewhat more sophisticated, and a direct response to the rising regional presence of China. In a sense, Tidd was asking the region to forgive the U.S. its past sins and join forces in a real partnership. The unstated, but implicit, alternative was that Latin American countries could turn to Beijing and risk starting a new relationship of dependency with the Chinese dragon.
This is going to be a difficult invitation to sell in Latin America, but one that regional leaders may want to seriously consider. At some point something will cause Trump to turn his attention south. Tidd may be offering Latin American countries an opportunity to not only advance their own national interests across a gamut of security issues, but also create a measure of protective insulation against the inevitable Twitter blast.
Burges is deputy director of the Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies and senior lecturer in International Relations at the Australian National University, as well as a visiting scholar at Carleton University in Canada. He is the author of Brazil in the World: The International Relations of a South American Giant (Manchester University Press, 2017) and Brazilian Foreign Policy After the Cold War (University Press of Florida, 2009) as well as over thirty scholarly articles and book chapters on Brazilian foreign policy, inter-American affairs, South-South relations and development.