China and Russia each pose different challenges for Latin America and the Caribbean, so there needs to be adjustments to the Defense Department’s strategies as well, said Daniel P. Erikson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere.

“The Department of Defense clearly plays a very important role in terms of working with partner militaries in the region and enhancing defense cooperation and our ability to work together more seamlessly across multiple domains, including air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace,” Erikson said today at an Atlantic Council event titled “Countering China and Russia in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

There are some very important elements to the challenges posed by both China and Russia that require a whole-of-government response because they are pursuing economic, political and diplomatic interests, he said. 

With so many challenges, the department has had to prioritize and deal with core risks or threats to U.S. and allies’ interests, Erickson said. 

The importance of democracy and democratic governance in this region is one of the United States’s core ideals, he said.

“We at DOD take very seriously the need for civilian control of the military, respect for human rights, and ensuring that militaries are abiding by the constitutional norms put forth by their democratic governments,” he said, adding that, for the most part, the department has seen militaries respect the norms of democratic governance.

Besides military partnerships, it’s critical that the U.S. private sector, U.S. industry and relevant U.S. agencies are engaging with this region “to ensure that we can make available offerings — whether it’s in defense, cyber, or in other areas — to meet the core national security needs of the countries there, Erikson said. 

For example, it’s important for nations to protect their critical, national-security infrastructure and ensure that they are only using trusted vendors for such items as telecommunications equipment, which could have military benefits to China, he said. 

“I also think that across U.S. industry, there really needs to be a deeper dive into what we can do to provide Latin American and Caribbean countries with the capabilities that they require at a price that they can afford,” he said. 

These governments are fiscally constrained and, in many cases, have underinvested in critical infrastructure for many years, he added. 

Countries in the region are facing transnational criminal organizations, climate threats, and border disputes. “So, they look at the risk posed by [China] as something that is going to come, perhaps, in the future — but not today. And so, really, educating our partners and making sure they’re aware of how some of the decisions that they make today could create long-term risk for them is really critical,” he said.

When it comes to Russia, many of the nations have been using their military equipment for years, which limits interoperability with the U.S. and allies, he noted.  

“At the end of the day, the way that the United States can meet the challenge that’s posed by great power competition in Latin America and the Caribbean is, really, by having a very proactive, affirmative and engaged U.S. agenda with the region and not just telling other countries what they shouldn’t be doing with other partners, but what they can do with the United States,” Erikson concluded.

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