Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., is warning that the Chinese communist regime is looking to take advantage of a “vacuum” left behind by the U.S. in South America — after a trip to the region where he heard from top government officials first-hand.
Hagerty, a former businessman and diplomat, visited Uruguay and Chile last week as part of a congressional delegation to the area, while also heading to Colombia by himself. Included in the visits were meetings with the presidents of each country, as well as top government officials including foreign ministers.
Hagerty told Fox News Digital that he saw how those countries have basic economic problems and are in the process of trying to develop their economies, and how the Chinese are trying to exploit that.
“Basic economic problems were exacerbated by the pandemic shutdowns that took place. So they’re trying to emerge from the pandemic with underperforming economies and with much higher crime rates. And in that situation, the United States has left a vacuum,” he said. “We have not shown up as we should have with our neighbors here in our own hemisphere.”
“China’s good at seeing the vacuum and seeing the opportunity, and they’re stepping up and taking advantage of it,” he said.
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Hagerty warned how China has stepped in elsewhere across the globe such as in Saudi Arabia, where they had brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But, while he blamed the Biden administration for the Chinese-Saudi moves, he said the vacuum in South America has been developing for some time.
“I think this has been going on for administrations both Republican and Democrat. This is not an immediate problem, but it’s been exacerbated tremendously by the pandemic,” he said.
He noted that Colombia has not had a U.S. ambassador now for two year and said the U.S. “needs to take these challenges seriously and step up and not allow these voids to continue.”
He described a move by China that sees Chinese-backed bidders for infrastructure come in and negotiate hard to lower standards and specifications, and then undercut any American bidder in the region.
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“They’re coming in and trying to invest in major infrastructure projects, whether it be telecommunications infrastructure, think Huawei. Or ports, strategic infrastructure of that nature, the software to manage ports, to track shipments. All of these are areas where the Chinese are very strategically focused,” he said.
“They’re looking for areas where they exert strategic control over the economy and the people of those nations. And in doing so, they can begin to come in and pull Latin America away from the United States,” he warned. “They are establishing a presence in our backyard.”
However, Hagerty is not pessimistic, and believes that the region would prefer to have the U.S. as its main ally, and that the U.S. can provide that help if it steps up to invest in the region.
“We have the advantage, we have a logistical advantage, we have a long history. We need to be finding ways to work together,” he said.
He said the countries in the region “need economic cooperation, they need technical logical cooperation, they need infrastructure, and they need investment by U.S. firms where the opportunity warrants.”
The Tennessee senator focused particularly on supply chains, getting them out of China and if they are not moving back to the U.S. then at least get them back to the Western Hemisphere.
“I use the term “friend-shoring” to bring those those supply chains that aren’t going to make it back to the United States, to neighboring countries that have less logistical risk because they’re near and also help us build stronger economic and strategic ties with our neighbors that over time will make, you know, our bloc in the Western Hemisphere stronger than any other in the world,” he said.
Hagerty also said that Washington needs to reconsider restrictions placed on development agencies like the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and how that is deployed under the 2018 BUILD Act in order to deal with competition from Beijing.
“We need to be able to look at strategic projects that will benefit not only the host nation whose our ally, but also that will benefit the United States of America and help our economic growth and help our economic linkages with those countries — whether it be to increase U.S. exports or to provide other economic or strategic opportunities for America,” he said. “Those considerations should be first and foremost as we think about how we deploy, you know, our development finance tools and tools that will support building infrastructure in other nations.”
Ultimately, Hagerty believes that there is potential bipartisan support for such a move and that a push to beat China’s state-controlled capitalism with an American market-based capitalism in the region would be successful.
“While I see significant challenges in our hemisphere today, I see much greater opportunity. And that opportunity comes from the fact that we have, you know, a natural that we have natural alliances in our hemisphere. We have very real opportunities and most of them are based on economic need,” he said.
“And a market based economy like the United States is far better suited to help our allies in the Western Hemisphere address those market-based opportunities than any solution that would be provided by China in the short run,” he said. “The challenge for us is to realize that opportunity and to step up before China seizes the opportunity.”
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