The officer leading U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Laura Richardson, shared her concerns regarding the growing Chinese influence and presence felt in “our neighborhood” — meaning the Americas — during the 2022 Aspen Security Forum.

Speaking during a Fireside Chat on July 20, Richardson emphasized the importance of not disregarding Chinese activity made under the guise of economic development in SOUTHCOM’s area of operation. First looks, she said, can be deceiving.

“China is playing chess; They have a long term view,” Richardson said. “They are setting the theater…or in layman’s terms, setting the table. When I show a map of the region where 21 of 31 countries have signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, it covers almost the entire region.”

Introduced in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative — also referred to as the New Silk Road — encompasses a series of development and investment deals that stretch from East Asia to Europe and everywhere in-between. The effort expands China’s economic and political influence.

U.S. officials have long voiced concerns about Chinese projects in Africa, Asia and Europe, often arguing that China is practicing “debt-trap diplomacy,” a framing that some academics and researchers have cast doubt on in recent years.

Richardson said Latin American and Caribbean countries are starving for outside investment following economic hits they suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic. And with 25 of the 31 countries in the SOUTHCOM region joining China under this initiative to build new infrastructure, military leaders such as Richardson are concerned about the potential consequences of China’s growing sphere of influence.

The investment includes deep water ports, telecommunications infrastructure and even space facilities.

“In the homeland in China, what are they going through right now? The largest military buildup in history,” Richardson said. “So one should ask themselves, ‘Why, when they have this very capable military, are they putting and trying to gain access to this critical infrastructure in other countries across the planet?’”

This isn’t the first time Richardson has voiced concerns over China’s presence in the neighborhood.

In March, Richardson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China “has abused commercial agreements at host country ports for military functions.”

“I was just in Panama about a month ago and flying along the Panama Canal and looking at all the state-owned enterprises from the [People’s Republic of China],” Richardson said. “They look like civilian companies or state-owned enterprises that could be used for dual use and could be quickly changed over to a military capability.”

To address these moves, according to Richardson, the U.S. needs to seriously focus on building up its neighbors, strengthening Caribbean and Latin American partners in order to establish a NATO-style organization in its own backyard.

“You have friends and neighbors very close by, you have neighbors that you rely on — you have neighbors that you rely on for security, for safety of the neighborhood, right? You’re in it together,” Richardson said.

Instead of the U.S. approaching its neighbors as a “big brother,” she said, the country needs to seek out equal partnerships.

“We have respect for them, and we need to show that,” Richardson added. “Our competitors are picking up the phone. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping is picking up the phone and calling these leaders and meeting with them and corresponding with them all the time, and we need to do the same.

“I think we can do better in that respect.”

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