Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command
June 7, 2018, Center for Naval Analyses
Good afternoon. It’s great to be here. CNA has been a terrific partner to SOUTHCOM. You’ve helped us think through several challenging issues, especially as they relate to the focus of my remarks today. I can think of no better place than CNA to tackle the complicated topic of competition with Russia and China. I look forward to our discussion.
When I attend events like this, I’m often asked, “What is your biggest challenge at SOUTHCOM?” After nearly three years in command I’m convinced it’s two fold.
The first is the security challenge of threat networks—those illicit, often violent non-state groups that undermine the sovereignty and security of Latin American nations.
The second is bringing awareness and attention to a region that is often overshadowed by more immediate priorities.
Those priorities aren’t the issue—I absolutely agree with them. The challenge is helping people appreciate how Latin America and the Caribbean “fits” into global issues like strategic competition with Russia and China.
When folks hear the words “strategic competition,’ they immediately think about what’s going on in Europe and Asia. That’s understandable. And it would be a mistake to see every instance of Russian or Chinese global activism, wherever it occurs, as a threat to the international order or the United States itself. But there are things we should pay attention to, especially in this part of the world.
This is the argument I’d like to present today: that Latin America and the Caribbean, like the Indo-Asia-Pacific and European theaters, is also a competitive space for partnerships. I already anticipate a very lively question and answer period!
Let me start by taking a few minutes to unpack what this competitive space looks like, from where I sit.
Over the past six years, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in Russia projecting its presence in the Western Hemisphere through the deployments of intelligence collection ships and long-range bombers. These deployments provide Russia with a collection platform and insights into our operations.
But Russia also intends these deployments to communicate the message that it is “back” as a global player.
While aimed at us and the region, this message is also aimed at Russia’s domestic audience, as part of a broader effort to distract from internal issues and endemic corruption.
Russia also directly competes with the United States in arms sales and security cooperation, acting as something of a “spoiler” by attempting to disrupt US engagement.
It also employs a full suite of diplomatic, intelligence, and informational tools in an attempt to influence public attitudes and decision makers.
For example, in Peru, Russia spread lies that the US intended to build military bases …around the same time we were negotiating a sale of US military equipment to our Peruvian counterparts. That timing was not accidental. Russia didn’t get anything out of it, other than frustrating our efforts. Which was likely the point all along.
Russia’s regional media agreements appear benign on the surface… but as we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, once allowed in, Russia exploits the situation to its fullest advantage.
It floods the internet, social media, and television outlets with original and reproduced propaganda, using RT-TV and Sputnik Mundo to employ a “fog of falsehood” designed to disorient audiences.
These state-run media outlets allow Russia to discredit, distort, or outright fabricate stories about the United States, and our role in the region. Russia’s ultimate goal appears aimed at sowing confusion and doubt.
China approaches competition differently. It is often accused of “debtor diplomacy.” Whether that’s accurate or not, when it comes to influence, China does have one important thing Russia lacks: deep pockets.
The PRC’s trillion dollar belt and road initiative runs right through the heart of Latin America and the Caribbean. With it comes the potential for increased leverage that can be used for a variety of purposes.
While China’s commercial expansion appears to offer an attractive path to development, there may be another set of goals at work.
Analysis by groups like the Center For Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) suggests that China’s commercial strategy—specifically, its maritime infrastructure investment goals—may also include far-reaching logistical support for its navy under the ‘cover’ of seemingly innocuous belt and road commercial operations.
According to C4ADS, while China touts its massive port investments as a “win-win,” this may not be the whole story.
Such investments could really be a vehicle to expand political and economic influence, advance China’s strategic interests at the expense of others, and perhaps even enable the stealthy expansion of China’s military presence in the future.
If C4ADS is right, and it’s happening in the Indo-Pacific region, there’s no reason to believe that down the road, Latin America and the Caribbean would be excluded.
There are two other concerning aspects of competition by Russia and China in the region.
One is how they’re using Latin America to weaken central elements of the international order.
Russia’s efforts in this arena are the most obvious.
It has deepened ties with allies that share the Kremlin’s increasingly authoritarian approach to governance and resentment of U.S. global leadership.
It has extended financial lifelines to keep its allies in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua afloat.
Along with China, it has shielded the corrupt Maduro regime from UN sanctions.
China’s efforts are more subtle. But, like Russia, its approach to engagement has implications for the strength of the rules-based system.
When the United States engages, we place a primacy on things like transparency and accountability for countries that are receiving our foreign aid or assistance. We also place a primacy on transparency and accountability on ourselves.
Russia and China, on the other hand, offer murky investments, shady financing, and the appearance of “no strings attached” loans and military training.
They place no demands on their partners to implement governance reforms…no demands to protect human rights, no demands to strengthen institutional accountability.
This matters, because these are all central principles underpinning the inter-American democratic system.
These are values that we, the west, and Latin America and the Caribbean have worked hard to protect and reinforce.
In that light, Russia and China’s approach to engagement is more transactional…it’s not really about building anything with the region…it’s about taking and gaining from the region.
Which brings me to the other area of concern: The unfair playing field both seek to create.
Despite all its rhetoric, Russian efforts across the world are really designed to safeguard its kleptocratic system.
Where the Russian state goes, Russian organized crime is sure to follow.
The scope of Russian corrupt influence in Latin America—especially in the form of drug trafficking or money laundering—is not well understood, but Russia’s crony capitalism is an integral part of its engagement.
Criminal activity is just another way Russia attempts to sow disorder and chaos in the rules-based system.
We also see similar issues with China.
As Deputy Secretary Of State Sullivan recently said, for more than 40 years, the United States has stood behind strict rules that bar Americans and American business from bribing foreign officials to secure an improper advantage. Many Chinese businesses have a mixed track record (at best) in this area.
This has implications for both the region and for the United States.
To riff on something Secretary Mattis just said, Latin America also has many belts and many roads.
It is a region open to free, fair, and reciprocal trade, not bound to any nation’s predatory economics or unscrupulous practices.
As the summit of the Americas demonstrated, momentum is growing for democratic accountability and anti-corruption efforts.
And China’s predatory approach to economic engagement poses a challenge to that momentum.
But there’s another aspect to this ‘unfair’ playing field that concerns me, and that comes in the form of increased access and counterintelligence threats.
China has cornered the market on the region’s telecommunications infrastructure.
Chinese and Russian cybersecurity firms actively market their IT systems throughout the region.
Russia and China also possess sophisticated cyber capabilities that are difficult to detect, much less defend against.
These aren’t just theoretical vulnerabilities…we’ve seen both employ these capabilities elsewhere to steal secrets and collect intelligence on our partners, and on us…which raises concerns they do the same in this region.
This impacts our defense partnerships, because we may not be able to share as much as we would like.
But for the region, these issues suggest that engagement by Russia and China may come with a hidden price. And part of that hidden price could be a creeping erosion of democratic principles…that are undermined without direct confrontation. And when something is not direct, it’s very difficult to defend against.
So that’s what the competitive space looks like in the region. Now the question is what we can, and should, do about it.
I think it’s important to acknowledge one thing up front. This may sound odd given what I just laid out. Addressing competition by Russia and China isn’t really about what they do. It’s about what we do. It’s about what we stand for, and what we don’t. It’s about how committed we are to our partners, and how hard we work to deepen that commitment. Success in the competitive realm depends on us, much more than it depends on anyone else.
From that perspective, competition is actually an opportunity.
Competitors force us to sharpen our focus on our ‘brand,’ and think about how we can be both different and better—how we can stand out from the pack.
For SOUTHCOM, this has involved some honest self-reflection of what we do well, what we can do better…and what needs to change.
The first thing we can do is the most obvious. We can stay engaged, and forge stronger relationships across the region.
One of the reasons Russia and China have made inroads is that they’ve exploited regional perceptions of US disengagement and disinterest…that Latin America is unimportant to us.
Across the US government, we’re working hard to reverse that perception. Fortunately, we’ve got solid foundation to work from.
There is already growing regional cooperation on the crisis in Venezuela, anti-corruption efforts, trade, and security.
Our partners are doing more with us, and with each other, to address criminal networks, and the illegal flows of people, drugs, and dirty money.
But there’s tremendous, still untapped potential to deepen our regional partnerships, especially in the areas of cyber defense, innovation, space, and contributions to regional and international security.
Engagement does something else that’s absolutely essential to defending the rules-based international order.
In the security realm, we’ve forged countless military-to-military ties through professional exchanges, education, defense institution building, and training. Those strong personal relationships help build strong positive associations with the United States.
But more importantly, military engagement has all sorts of positive spillovers.
It offers an excellent opportunity to deepen norms and values of American foreign policy.
It provides a vehicle for reinforcing respect for human rights, rule of law, and good governance.
As but one example, for the past 20 years SOUTHCOM has worked with regional militaries to promote and strengthen respect for human rights.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s much still to do…and an added sense of urgency, because Russia and China do not share our commitment to human rights, or make any attempt to reinforce democratic norms through their respective engagements.
Related to broadening engagement, we also need to do a better job communicating our commitment to our partners, to help dispel the regional perception that we’ve disengaged.
Perhaps some of that perception is related to the fact that US engagement on trade, security, energy, and everything else is so natural, so much a part of daily life in Latin America, it’s almost unremarkable.
To use a business analogy: We aren’t the new Silicon Valley startup. We’re the long running, reliable, and (almost boring) Dow Jones Industrial.
China comes along, drops billions on big new ports and other high profile infrastructure projects, people take notice.
They wonder where the United States is.
They forget that US companies have been in business for decades, and generate employment for millions of Latin American workers.
They see China’s hospital ship make a couple of port calls, and they wonder where the Comfort is.
What they don’t see are the numerous medical readiness training exercises we do every year with our partners, and the tens of thousands of patients across the region we help treat.
They don’t have any idea that we just provided transportation to children who suffered burns from the recent volcano eruption in Guatemala. We don’t do any of this for the recognition—we do it because it’s the right thing to do.
So part of this is doing a better job at communicating how we’re engaging with the region, being clear about what we’re doing, and why, and let the region draw its own conclusion about Russia and China’s respective approaches and goals.
There’s also a side benefit to proactive strategic communication, and that involves dispelling the misperceptions and misinformation about the United States that Russia peddles on a daily basis.
But another component of better strategic communication is pushing back when Russia or China engage in destabilizing behavior.
I’m not suggesting a return to a cold war mentality. Far from it.
But there are aspects of their activities in the region that warrant greater collective scrutiny, vigilance, and exposure—not just by the United States, but by any nation that values democratic progress and universal values like freedom and accountability.
Part of this entails raising awareness about potential security concerns, when it comes to Russian presence or China’s monopoly on it infrastructure.
Part of this involves education and media literacy, which our State Department partners are working hard at.
Part of this involves getting better at reframing the narrative when others attempt to distort it.
And part of this involves holding Russia and China accountable to Inter-American principles—and calling them out when they don’t.
And let me be clear: these aren’t “American” principles.
They are Inter-American ones, that form a set of collective, clear expectations held by nations in the Western Hemisphere: any nation seeking to build regional relationships should respect the principles of peace, good governance, and human rights.
This includes the United States…and it includes Russia and China. As the foundation of our hemisphere’s democratic stability, these principles are non-negotiable…and when they are threatened, we (all) have to speak up.
And finally, there’s the single most important thing we can do. Like I said earlier, this is about us. We have to do everything we can to remove barriers to engagement and partnering.
Nations across Latin America welcome our engagement, but the truth is, it can be difficult to work with us.
Legislated complexities, funding delays, and bureaucratic practices can create obstacles that lessen our appeal as a partner.
When Russia and China come along with their ‘no strings attached’ offers, they can market themselves as more responsive and less demanding.
Our partners are eager for training, for capacity-building, for security cooperation.
If they can’t get it from us—if we make it just too darn difficult—they’re going to look elsewhere.
A former SOUTHCOM commander, Admiral Jim Stavridis, used to talk about Latin America being a ‘marketplace of ideas.’
This still holds true. But it’s also a marketplace of engagement. We’re no longer the only game in town. This means we’ve got to do a better job at how we partner, if we want to remain competitive.
We have to help our partners navigate how to work with us. Or better yet, we shouldn’t be afraid to change how we do business, or challenge ourselves to constantly be and do better.
Like I said before, competition is really an opportunity…if we choose to take it.
And that’s really my main message.
There is tremendous opportunity in this part of the world.
As we engage forward to address the global challenges of Russia and China, let’s not forget to look south.
Look to our friends and neighbors, who share our values and many of our interests.
Who have worked with us for years to help make this hemisphere a beacon of democracy and peace, and who share our interest in keeping it that way.
Who are doing their part to keep our hemisphere safe, and by extension, our nation secure.
Now it’s time to do ours.
 Gurganus, J. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Russia: Playing a Geopolitical Game in Latin America.” May 3, 2018.
 Thorne, D and Spevak, B. “Harbored Ambitions: How China’s Port Investments are Strategically Reshaping the Info-Pacific Region.” C4ADS publication.
 Biden, J. and Carpenter, M (2017). How to Stand Up to the Kremlin: Defending Democracy Against Its Enemies. Foreign Affairs, 2017.
 Deputy Secretary of State Michael Sullivan. Remarks at the 48th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas. May 8, 2018.