Americans often get wrapped up in East-West concerns, but U.S. Southern Command "is our neighborhood," Southcom Commander Army Gen. Laura Richardson said — at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
As the general spoke about the collection of 31 nations that make up her command, she described a region that is often overlooked — a condition she called "South blindness."
Richardson said being in a neighborhood means "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."
The general said she's working to grow that neighborly feeling among the U.S. and the Latin American and Caribbean nations of Southcom. Rather than approaching each key leader engagement as if the U.S. is the "big brother," she said, the U.S. is seeking partnerships, because that's how neighborhoods work. "You expect an understanding," Richardson said. "You expect to work with them to understand their challenges."
"We have respect for them, and we need to show that," Richardson said. "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. And I think we can do better in that respect."
China is deeply involved in the region. Of Southcom's 31 nations, 25 have signed on to China's Belt and Road initiative — the Chinese global infrastructure development plan. The level of Chinese investment in each country varies, but, Richardson said, the money has strings attached to it.
In a region starving for investment and with leaders looking for ways to deliver for their citizens — particularly in light of the damage wrought by COVID-19 — Chinese money is appealing, but it's also a debt trap, she said.
Loans are taken out for projects — sometimes multiple loans — that either must be paid back in cash, or by giving up some sovereignty, the general said. "It's a spiraling trap," the general added.
Chinese investment is really extraction, Richardson said. Not just in terms of cash or natural resources, but also strategic positions. The general described a recent flight over the Panama Canal where she saw Chinese state-owned enterprises on both sides of the canal that could be turned quickly toward military capabilities.
"I think we should be concerned, but this is a global problem," she said.
"This is the same playbook that they've used in Africa, Asia, Europe, it's not new," Richardson said.
But now it's in America's neighborhood, the general added.
It's against this backdrop that the power of partnerships becomes critical, she said. "If you're really going to get after their challenges and help them, you have to look at it and understand their perspective," the general said.
Richardson said that as she was meeting with one of her regional counterparts, she noticed a map on his wall.
"A lot of us in the military have maps that we that we showcase and put in nice pretty frames and everything. And he had this map of the Southern Cone and Antarctica,” she said. “And he flipped it around, it was upside down [from] the way how we normally look at the globe — Antarctica's at the bottom right? It was at the top. And the Southern Cone came up in a point. And that's how he looks at the region."
The strength conveyed by partnerships is on display in Ukraine, as it fends off the Russian invasion with the help of the U.S. and Europe, the general said.
"We see that power," Richardson said, but, she said, the U.S. must be careful about its adversaries and competitors creating that same type of situation right in its neighborhood.