In the eight months I’ve commanded United States Southern Command, I’ve been impressed by the strengths and opportunities of the Western Hemisphere — a neighborhood we are privileged to share with so many nations with common values. These strengths and opportunities include like-minded democracies, widespread respect for human rights and the potential for even stronger military-to-military relationships.

But my eyes have also been opened to the urgency and complexity of the challenges in our hemisphere. Our collective neighborhood is under attack by a vicious circle of threats: corruption and transnational organized crime that erode effective governance; violent extremism; and the subversive influence of malign actors (China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba) that openly counter democracy and freedom across the theater. This hemisphere is now key terrain in the global competition for values, ideas and ideals.

The vicious circle works like this: With every illegal activity, criminals and violent extremists undermine rule of law and stability. We feel the impacts in our homeland, in the form of illegal drugs that cost our families and our nation tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. Our neighbors feel the impacts as violence and corruption cost lives, limit economic growth and erode the rule of law. Instability and violence fuel migration crises that strain social and legal systems. External and malign state actors who seek to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian models exploit these conditions to expand their influence.

China is the most concerning of these malign state actors. While senior Chinese leaders talk about “win-win” cooperation, China’s opaque business practices fuel corruption, its illegal fishing threatens food security, and its telecommunications investments and access to space-tracking facilities put intellectual property, private data and our military operations, as well as those of our allies, at risk.

Both China and Russia have gained access to regional space, telecommunications and port facilities with potential military uses. China and Russia also export arms and expertise to prop up authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Cuba.

Russia and Iran spread disinformation to sow distrust between nations of the hemisphere, and between governments and their own people. Iran, which has exported its state-sponsored terrorism to the Americas, maintains facilitation networks and raises funds through its proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah.

How should we respond? The National Defense Strategy highlights the importance of alliances and partnerships — this is exactly right for SOUTHCOM, where strengthening partnerships is the best way to reduce threats and enhance our collective readiness and capability to meet global challenges.

That means building domain awareness — including in cyberspace — increasing partner capacity and sharing information so that we collectively do more to address mutual threats.

It also means capitalizing on our greatest strengths: trust and military professionalism. Our hemisphere is home to many capable and professional military and security forces eager to cooperate more with the U.S. We share an enduring promise to be present, reliable and steadfast allies and partners.

Our primary competitive advantage is the unmatched quality of our education, training, doctrine and leader development. In addition, our support and acquisition processes are transparent. We work with our allies and partners to develop effective forces and institutions that reflect and protect the foundations of the international order: democracy, sovereignty, human rights and the rule of law. The building blocks of our cooperation include intelligence sharing, engagements, education and training, personnel exchanges, and joint operations and exercises. Playing to our strengths means expanding these building blocks, especially education and training, in our neighborhood.

But to compete and win, we also need consistent military presence. Like athletes, we can’t compete if we’re not on the field.

When we are on the field, the impacts are positive. In Central America, our Joint Task Force—Bravo and combined Marine Corps Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force are building collective capability and readiness in U.S., allied and partner forces.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, the hospital ship USNS Comfort with its multinational team of medical professionals is providing world-class care to populations in need, reducing suffering caused by the man-made crisis in Venezuela, and strengthening collective medical readiness and interoperability.

Coast Guard ships are force multipliers whenever they support the 22-nation Joint Interagency Task Force South, based in Key West, in interdicting illicit drug shipments. In the future, U.S. Navy platforms like the littoral combat ship could catalyze progress in building collective readiness and interoperability during multinational operations and exercises in this hemisphere.

It is clear that focused, modest investments in our hemisphere — in presence, partnerships and professionalism — will yield tremendous returns for the United States, our allies and our partners.

Everywhere I go, I hear about the importance of the Western Hemisphere — our neighborhood — to our national security. In addition to illicit trafficking and other traditional threats, allies and partners are sounding the alarm about the growing malign influence of aspiring great powers in our shared neighborhood.

The security threats are real. We must break the vicious circle. The time to act is now.

Adm. Craig S. Faller is the head of U.S. Southern Command.