The United States has been considering the idea of cutting back troop strengths in both Africa and South America to begin to free-up more troops to counter near-peer potential adversaries in Russia and China. 

The opinion here is that this would be a mistake since both Russia and China are actively trying to build their influences in Africa and South America. Last week, Admiral Craig Faller, the commander of SOUTHCOM, made a push with Congress to get support for more involvement, both diplomatically and economically in Latin America. 

He had some bipartisan support for this track as both Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the committee’s ranking member was on the side of the Admiral. 

Inhofe said that both AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM “have never been adequately resourced.”

“[The idea] to cut back troop strength in either region to free-up more troops to counter near-peers Russia and China makes no sense when both countries are aggressively expanding their influence in Africa and Central and South America,” Inhofe said.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper skirted the issue during a Pentagon press conference when he stated that some troops could be repositioned in the near future. He didn’t give any details but did say, “I know the inclination is whenever someone says ‘review,’ the word that automatically pops up in their head is ‘reduction.’ It is a rebalancing,” Esper said.

“In some cases, we will increase; in some cases, we won’t change; and in some cases, we will decrease,” he said. 

Latin America has always been in America’s sphere of influence, since the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine. But China is rapidly building its cache in the region through trade and compatibility. The poor countries of Latin America are rich in natural resources and needy of cash. Since 2000, trade between Latin America and China has increased by nearly 20 fold. 

China has pushed investments in Latin America worth about $100 billion a year. It was buying commodities (crude oil, coal, iron ore, soybeans, etc) but has since moved into building new infrastructures such as ports and railways. It is now branching out into finance and communications.

China is now the main trade partner of Brazil, Perú, and Chile and the second leading trade partner of Argentina. The Chinese are trying to get both Brazil and Argentina to buy into their “Belt and Road” Initiative and adopt their nuclear and 5G technologies. With Venezuela already under the influence of Russia, having China move in and pump billions into its shattered economy, could be a major blow for the U.S. especially if Bejing decides to enter the region militarily through Caracas. 

American Vice President Mike Pence has warned the countries of the region of the “predatory economic activity” of China’s state-owned companies and of what has been characterized as “debt loan traps” whereby one doesn’t just build debt but dependence. Pence has attempted to gain back some leverage by proposing some new initiatives in the region.

The governments of both Argentina and Brazil, have been waffling on who they want to support in their countries, going back and forth between supporting China and Russia on one hand and the United States on the other. 

Now is the time for the United States to ease some of the protectionist trade policies and build long-term strategic partnerships in the region. Not cutting troop strength should be part of the American regional strategy. Instead, in SOUTHCOM as well as Africa, if we’re truly intent on countering Russian and Chinese influence, more U.S. assets need to move in, not out.