WASHINGTON — The commander of U.S. military forces in the Caribbean and Latin America says the U.S. is keeping a wary eye on China’s inroads into the region and is not ruling out the possibility of them building military bases in the region.
Adm. Kurt Tidd, commander, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), said on Monday that growing alliances with some nations in the region will help counter China’s thrusts as well as battle the myriad of partnerships of criminal and terrorist groups that are proliferating through the region.
The advances in technology and communication available to these terrorists are “unprecedented in global reach,” Tidd said, permitting criminal tentacles throughout the hemisphere as a cauldron of human, arms, weapons, drugs and dirty money trafficking.
Tidd said other nations now acknowledge how easy it is for some of their citizens to be radicalized by ISIS propaganda. “As we have seen in the United States, it is all too easy,” Tidd said.
“We need to widen the flow of information” to increase multi-national and inter-agency action against criminals and terrorists, Tidd said, in order to better “detect and disrupt.”
For that reason, Tidd said SOUTHCOM has focused on building a “regional security network of principled, inclusive partnerships.” He said hemispheric threats are now meshed with global threats, with increased determination by China, Russia and Iran to use various terrorist and criminal groups to seep into and disrupt the region and the United States.
SOUTHCOM, headquartered in Doral, Fla., is the smallest of the U.S.’s nine regional military commands.
Tidd noted that 283 metric tons of cocaine were seized last year thanks to regional partnerships. Without those partnerships, at least 77 tons of that cocaine would have gotten into the United States, he said.
China’s increased efforts to penetrate SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility are high on the radar, Tidd said.
“China’s economic competition is very significant,” he said. He said some nations fail to see the downsides of the long-term impact of Chinese investment, including a lack of transparency in financial dealings that would show who really is in control.
He also said nations flirting with Chinese investment must “understand who is going to be here after other partners leave.”
Significantly, Tidd did not dismiss questions about China seeking to put a military base in the western hemisphere. After a pause he noted that China has put bases in other parts of the world where they have not been before and said that no one should be surprised if they seek a similar strategy in the western hemisphere.
Last fall, China announced it will provide Panama with whatever help it needs after the Central American country ditched long-standing ties with self-ruled Taiwan. At that time, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said the decision had nothing to do with “checkbook diplomacy.”
Shortly thereafter, a group including China Harbor Engineering Company started building a 165 million port in Panama for cruise ships. The two countries have at least 19 bilateral agreements, one of which includes plans for negotiating a free-trade agreement.
China is already Panama’s second-largest source of imports and the second-biggest user of the Panama Canal. The Panamanian government also sold two prime U.S.-built port facilities to a Chinese company, which gives them full control over the ports at both entry and exit points of the Canal.
That is all the more reason that “if we value the region, we must continue to pay close attention to our (allies).. we have to be present to compete,” he said.
Tidd cited growing relationships with Columbia, Chile, Brazil and now Argentina as nations where interaction with the U.S. has increased. As an example, Tidd said the Chilean navy will be taking part this summer in the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise , the largest such exercise in the world, for the first time this year. He also outlined how Colombia has increased its anti-coca efforts.
In other areas, he said that the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay has fewer than 50 prisoners and that it could probably take in another 50 before increasing the size of the guard force.