WASHINGTON — Opaque political and business deals by Russia and China in Latin America and the Caribbean threaten to destabilize the Western Hemisphere if countries aren’t wary, the deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command said Wednesday.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Plehn told a virtual audience at the annual Defense News Conference Sept. 9 that increasing involvement in the region by Russia and China could have consequences, even comparing their behavior to the kind of transnational criminal organizations that SOUTHCOM regularly combats.

“I would reinforce the point that the United States of America derives tremendous security benefit from a peaceful, stable, secure Western Hemisphere.” Plehn said. "But in respect to great power competition, China and Russia don’t value the same things as our Western democracies value. They don’t cherish the same principles we do and that we steadfastly defend with our partners.

“They thrive – China and Russia – much like trans-national criminal organizations on non-transparent political and business decisions. And they use that to their greatest advantage.”

Russia has longstanding ties in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 2018, Russia made headlines when two Tu-160 bombers visited Venezuela in the middle of political upheaval in the country. And China, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, has been seeking to pour money into projects in the region, with Chinese President Xi Jinping setting goals as high as $250 billion for infrastructure projects.

But countries in Asia and Africa have been wary of the terms of the Chinese investment deals, a fact Plehn made reference to, adding that Chinese and Russian interests could be destabilizing to the region.

“Certainly I think the world is coming to realize that some of these non-transparent political and business decisions are occurring and they certainly are occurring in this hemisphere and we need to shine the light of day on that,” Plehn said.

“So, buyer beware, if you do business with them make sure you read the fine print because I guarantee that the contract is not written with the security and stability of the Western Hemisphere in mind, it’s written with the interests that they want to extract from us.”

China has signed memorandum of understanding agreements with more than a dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries for Belt and Road participation.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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