What a Biden Win Means for Latin America

Latin America has had an interesting history with democracy.  From the “southern cone” to the Rio Grande, the countries of the western hemisphere have endured a political cycle of right-wing fascism that gives way to leftist insurgency and socialist governments which in turn were vulnerable to military coups. The common denominator through it all was a robust U.S. foreign policy interest in the region. Though American foreign policy manifested differently through the decades, no country south of the border can remain unaffected by decisions made in Washington. This was as true in 1820 as it is in 2020, so what will a Biden win mean for Latin America?

Carry a Big Stick

The history of U.S. influence in the region arguably begins with the administration of James Monroe whose “doctrine” is presented to history as an anti-colonial gesture aimed at the powers of Europe. In Latin American and European capitals however, it is seen less as a benevolent hedge against colonialism and more as an argument for giving Washington a free hand in the region.

Whatever Mr. Monroe’s true motivation, its effect was a succession of American Presidents that dealt roughly in the region. James K. Polk needed to win a war against Mexico to secure the southern flank for manifest destiny. William McKinley bowed to political pressure and declared war on Spain, a conflict that handed America its first taste of imperial responsibility. Theodore Roosevelt supported insurrection to create a nation (Panama) favorable to construction of the canal. Even Eisenhower, the ultimate practitioner of a cooperative foreign policy, did not shy away from supporting the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala and elsewhere. Thereafter, US foreign-policy in Latin America became a balance of fighting communism and fighting drugs; neither of which did much to impede existing oligarchies or bring peace.

While post-war relations brought cooperation and development to those that sought it and coercion and deterrence to that that did not; the Trump administration somehow managed to weave it all together. Characterized by a transient focus on a handful of issues that would impact Trump’s domestic voting base, the United States shifted all its development programs and most of its diplomacy to the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and the independent Development Finance Corporation; a government agency that guarantees loans to be issued to local investors by local banks. The result was the commoditization of a narrow list of foreign policy priorities that had little to do with anything except providing sound bytes for the never-ending Trump campaign.

Aside from a recurring focus on deterring immigration from Central America, none of Washington’s policies south of the border seemed to have any longevity or credibility. American ambassadors and working level-diplomats continued to make cooperative noises and broadcast neighborly themes of solidarity against endemic poverty, inequality, and crime but their voices were drowned out by the President who cancelled summits, made fun of and threatened leaders that displeased him, subordinated complex relationships to his narrow interests, and seemed unable to focus on anything for meaningful periods of time. Among his short lived fixations were making Mexico pay for a wall they did not want and which would not accomplish its purpose; a renaming of the North American Free Trade Agreement without any of the legislative legwork required for meaningful reforms; a poorly conceived attempt to topple Venezuela’s president by supplying his rival with humanitarian assistance and political top cover; and a very brief “war” against cartels in the Caribbean. The result was a decline in goodwill toward American leadership and a generation of Latin American leaders that got very good at telling Washington what it wants to hear while doing as little as necessary to keep the money flowing.

What Would Joe Biden Do?

A future Biden administration will have its work cut out for it in Latin America. While the job will not be as straightforward as simply rolling back Trump’s policies, there is recognition the United States must rebuild relationships for mutual benefit down South. Immigration is the most obvious starting point. The Trump Administration’s migration policies were among the most comprehensive attempted during his tenure. Building the wall and deploying the military was only part of that. Changing U.S. interpretations of political asylum procedures; imposing legally questionable deportation practices; and altering incarceration standards that saw children separated from their parents and held in horrifying conditions also came into play. But these were only the symptoms of a larger bureaucratic alignment that Biden will fix.

In 2018 the Trump administration crippled U.S. development and cooperation relationships in Central America by prohibiting USAID and parts of the State Department from initiating new programs there. Diplomats report an inability to secure meetings, a lack of involvement in events, and are facing difficult decisions to cut valuable local staff. Coupled with the government shutdown at the outset of that year that affected all but the Defense Department, U.S. engagement with host nation governments has been radically shifted to the security sector at the expense of education, anti-corruption, and judicial reform. In much of Latin America security agencies are the least capable of addressing the preconditions that lead to migration and in some cases have terrible relationships with the exact segments of the population that are most likely to migrate.

The upshot of this is we will see an immediate move to rebalance U.S. foreign aid programs in Latin America in general but in Central America in particular since the focus will be once again on immigration. Rather than reiterating the punitive approach taken by Trump, Biden will likely adopt four policy aims:

  • Redouble and revitalize cooperative efforts to help Mexico address its rule of law challenges with special attention to the problem of corruption. Social programs that reduce U.S. drug addiction, illegal firearms flows, and money laundering will reduce the size of the U.S. market and profitability.
  • Rebalance U.S. Foreign Aid: U.S. security interests in Central America include a complex mix of countering transnational organized crime, building partner capacity, intelligence sharing, and countering malign influences that impact the stability of governance or impede U.S. objectives. Addressing these threats requires improvements to the capability of law enforcement, refocusing military roles away from traditional law enforcement tasks, improving disaster response capacity, and countering malign influences from abroad.
  • Address Conditions that Lead to Migration: The vast majority of Central American migrants to the United States are seeking economic opportunity or to escape violence by either government or criminal organizations. Relatively small investments in economic development, enhancements to fairness and impartiality in both governance and economics, protection of minority rights, and assistance to migrants and refugees can go a long way to prevent Central Americans from making a decision to migrate. USAID has long been the primary foreign policy tool for addressing these problems. Biden will re-enable USAID and breathe life back into relationships with its governmental and non-governmental partners.
  • Encourage Regional Integration: Regional integration in Central America is expanding in some very effective ways in the Northern Tier and will be encouraged. Examples include cooperation agreements on immigration, disaster response, human rights, and legislation. Biden will encourage regional initiatives as a way to develop efficiencies in the above areas and more by enabling more meaningful engagement with international organizations and resuming a U.S. leadership role.


    Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

    Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Strategic Geography of the Internet

Nearly 30 years since the invention of the world wide web, we have become accustomed to having high-speed, relevant content at our fingertips virtually everywhere we go. The availability of rapidly searchable information is now so important that the service economy globally is completely dependent upon the internet. Increasingly, automation and machine learning have made it possible to integrate the industrial economy as well. Public utilities, industrial and commercial supply chains, emergency response capability, transportation, and public health are all monitored and controlled via the web. Entire economies, governance, and even military power is now largely determined by availability of information…and it all rides on the thinnest of fibers.

If there is a physical structure to the internet, it is the thousands of miles of fiber optic cable that wrap around the planet. These tiny filaments are bundled into cables that carry trillions of terabits of data over mountains and under oceans at the speed of light. The amount of data exchanged daily between machines, sensors, and humans is increasing exponentially and includes everything from cat videos to military targeting data. For that reason, control of the internet, and the cables that carry it, has become a strategic concern for governments and industry alike.

The Thinnest of Threads

The cables that carry the web are simple in concept but complex in reality. Data, in the form of light, passes through tiny transparent fiber optic cables. These fibers, fractions of millimeters in diameter and made of glass, are unsuitable for use in the environment without reinforcement. With some variation, their structure resembles the diagram below with different layers designed to provide functionality and to protect the core from the elements and from breakage by stretching, creasing, or crushing. Adequately protected, the fiber assemblies are bundled into larger cables and laid across the ocean floor by specially equipped vessels.

Fiber Optic Cable
Diagram of a typical fiber optic cable. Many of these will be combined into the large cables that carry the internet between continents.

There is nothing simple however about the function of fiber optic cables. The simultaneous transmission and reception of vast amounts of data on either end of the cable is a complex operation. Distributing that data across all the various fibers must be done with enough redundancy so that information is not impeded by tiny breakages or blockages along the thousands of miles of cable. However, transmitting all data on all fibers all the time is inefficient and instead must be done so that data can reliably reach specific destinations without wasting bandwidth. Balancing this distribution at the speed of light and monitoring the health of the cable along its entire length requires sophisticated servers and feedback mechanisms.

Despite careful management and protective measures, the cables are still vulnerable in a number of ways. Materials degrade over time, making the cables lose strength and possibly eroding their efficiency. They can be broken or damaged by fishing or survey gear, punctured by wildlife, or severed by landslides and earthquakes. On 26 December 2006, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Taiwan, severing eight cables in 18 places. The event severely disrupted internet connectivity in most of Asia for several weeks. Despite subsequent improvements to the strength, diversity, and resiliency of the network, it is still vulnerable to seismic activity and of course, there is no combination that is safe from intentional tampering.

Internet Bottleneck

Herein lies the strategic challenge and opportunity presented by undersea cables. All but one of the multitude of cables servicing Southeast Asia and the southern and western parts of the Indian Subcontinent pass first through the South China Sea. Not only is this an arena of intense strategic competition, but the sea itself is uniformly shallow making the cables relatively easy to access. While any reasonably capable state actor could cut these cables – certainly all those with claims in the South China Sea possess this capability – a more valuable, but more difficult, endeavor is to steal the information flowing through them. Though this is notoriously difficult with fiber optics, it is not impossible.

The techniques for tapping fiber-optic lines are a tightly guarded secret but the principle is an old one. Put a sensor on the line, record all the information that flows past it, and analyze it later. Naturally the lines are more vulnerable at retransmission stations called “regeneration points” and at “landing stations” where the cables emerge from the sea. Still, preventing such theft is not easy. Sensing technologies do exist to detect such tampering but it is not clear how effective they are or how dependent on interpretation. Even if tampering could be reliably detected, it cannot be prevented and it will never be possible to determine what information was stolen and what was not.

Strategic Geography

In historical conflicts, adversaries sought to deny each other access to critical resources or domains of competition such as the seas. In the event of a future conflict in the Indo Pacific region, it may not be possible for an adversary to deny Australia and Southeast Asia access to the world’s oceans, but it is indeed possible to limit their access to the lifeblood of the world economy. U.S. and Australian strategic planners take this problem seriously. They recognize for example there are no complete solutions to the threat posed by Chinese access to the South China Sea and the cables that lie underneath it. One partial solution is as simple as it is ancient. By laying a new cable from the United States to Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore, on a route that passes south of New Guinea, planners can protect the line by putting a tremendous amount of physical distance and defensible terrain between it and the adversary.

The route, which has obvious geographical advantages, also says something about the future of US-Australian-Indonesian relations vis-à-vis China. Interestingly but not surprisingly, the project is being implemented as a cooperative venture between private industry, the respective militaries, and in the case of the United States, as an economic development project funded by the Development Finance Corporation (DFC). The fusion of development with economics and security is not a new concept and is in fact a feature of imperial behavior throughout history. In the 19th Century the fuel that defined power in the Pacific was agriculture and coaling stations. In the 20th it was oil. In the 21st Century, it is — in part — the strategic role of information and the infrastructure that carries it.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Conflict in the South China Sea: Alternate Futures

“No serious futurist deals in prediction. These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers.” – Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist

Much ink has been spilled over scenarios that may result in a conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. It is fair to state that many have been deliberated and reiterated regularly – tensions on the Korean peninsula, clashes or incidents during a freedom of navigation or an intelligence-gathering operation in the South China Sea, or Taiwan declaring independence. This brief and speculative forecast explores four alternatives, within or beyond the South China Sea and occurring on a “spectrum of intent” ranging from premeditated and/or avoidable or unplanned and/or accidental. No matter how or where it occurs, each singular scenario in the table below could act as the fuse to a U.S.-PRC conflict by 2030.

The simple table shown below displays how four alternative futures are generated. For each, the text below in italics for each scenario gives a one-line summary as to the worldview in this possible future. It is followed by three possible signposts that may lead to, or are characteristic of, the imagined future.

Within the South China Sea Beyond the South China Sea
Premeditated, Avoidable Alternative Future A Alternative Future C
Unplanned, Accidental Alternative Future B Alternative Future D

Alternative Future A: High Seas Interdiction

A U.S. resurgence shows as the ‘Indo-Asia Pacific’ concept acquires currency and tangible forms, formal or otherwise, which the U.S. leads or sponsors but China contests. Select U.S. proliferation security or multilateral military exercises in 2020, involving countries beyond Southeast Asia, lose their original intent and gain aspects of informal alliances or unstated treaties revolving around the Indo-Pacific in 2030. Japan joins as a junior member, together with Germany, of the now-renamed “Five Eyes Plus Two” intelligence-sharing group. Regular and predictable joint statements from ASEAN are a thing of the past, as spirited debates and widening interests among its members mar what was once a due formality.

Scenario: A China Coast Guard (CCG) ship attempts to interdict an Indian-flagged civilian vessel inbound for Taiwan, in international waters within the South China Sea. Repeated boarding attempts by CCG boarding parties are frustrated by evasive maneuvers, emplaced concertina razor wires and sandbags, and serious resistance offered by the Indian crew members who employ water cannons and foam monitors. Suffering mounting casualties from small arms fire and the near-certainty of a CCG seizure of their vessel, the captain and chief engineer begin scuttling her, acting under sealed orders from New Delhi. An Australian Navy ship receiving the Indian vessel’s distress call quickly arrives at the scene to pick-up survivors under Chinese protestations. The Americans in turn rapidly converge nearby USN ships, which incidentally include a rescue and salvage vessel in transit to Japan, to secure the site and recover the rumored cargo: sea-launched cruise missiles destined for Taiwan’s German-licensed, indigenously built submarines. Amidst ratcheting tensions between the parties involved, an apprehensive Beijing quietly hastens mobilization for a cross-strait invasion, irrespective of its state of preparedness.

Alternative Future B: A Downed Flight

China’s leaders, confident, yet eager to entrench its self-perceived hegemony, ‘speak softly’ yet signal to officials down below that ‘big stick’ initiatives are “acceptable” to preserve the status quo. A handful of small countries, beholden to Beijing, officially recognize the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), now known as the Eastern and Southern Peace ADIZ, concurrent with China formally issuing a document on its definitions, interpretations, and enforcement. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is no longer a Chinese talking point and is dismissed during regional backdoor meetings as an ‘anachronism’. It is suggested that a revised version be issued via “regional consultations”. China’s Maritime Militia are now equipped with newer and larger boats and are now shadowed by CCG ships during patrols or escort missions at contested fishing zones in the South China Sea.

Scenario: A Taiwanese civilian airliner mysteriously crashes in waters close to South Korea and Japan while attempting to defy China’s newly expanded ADIZ that has now encompassed the South China Sea. Onboard were Taiwanese officials, Japanese diplomats, and media entourage from both countries. Much later, air traffic control voice recordings and open-source data would indicate that the airplane was hailed and shadowed by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force fighters, and for a short period, its flight path was well within the theoretical tracking and acquisition range of a PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer. Salvage, rescue, and naval ships from four countries – China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – converge on the general crash location in order to secure physical evidence and the airplane’s black boxes. Within days, it devolves into serious skirmishes between various parties that include ramming and direct fire, forestalling hopes of the quick recovery of the black boxes. The U.S. deploys a carrier battle group to support joint Taiwanese-Japanese efforts to recover the black boxes. Seoul quickly backs down, but China matches American naval presence in a tense stand-off in the East China Sea.

Alternative Future C: Ethnic Killings

The word ‘China’ in South China Sea is no longer a geographic description but de facto and de jure, with acquiescence by many countries surrounding the body of water via a tacit acknowledgment of China’s dominance. Most ASEAN militaries increasingly field and flaunt China-made planes and ships while occasional forays or extended presence by the U.S. in the South China Sea is indulged by PRC in 2030 as “American nostalgia”. The ASEAN countries that once hosted or trained with the U.S. Military, are terminating or reducing the once welcome presence. One or two are even abiding tour operators featuring excursions at China’s reclaimed “islands” open for tourism. China’s re-tooling of its much-criticized “debt diplomacy” is a great success as countries along its touted ‘string of pearls’ increasingly eschew the World Bank and IMF in favor of Beijing.

Scenario: Ultra-nationalists in a South Asian country carry out the first of a series of deadly attacks against their country’s religious minority by using a political procession – ostensibly to protest a remark by a minority rights activist in an interview – as both cover and rallying point. Unverified reports of mass killings follow claims that security forces failed to protect minority-populated areas or were ordered to stand down. As weeks pass with the country on verge of civil war, U.S. and India announce the dispatch of a combined joint task force to the South Asian country under a humanitarian pretext, pending a UNSC resolution. China denounces the preemptive move as blatant, unwarranted interference in the “internal affairs” of said country. The embattled South Asian government, wary of its giant neighbor, officially requests Chinese “peace-keepers.” Beijing quickly agrees and introduces a UNSC draft resolution of their own. Meanwhile, China rallies its token naval presence in-country and mobilizes reinforcements. The race is on to see who will be first to dictate “facts on the ground” aimed at denying or establishing, for the first time in centuries, a significant Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.

Alternative Future D: Embassy Attack

Under domestic pressures, the U.S. voluntarily retrenches from the first island chain to the second and then third in quick succession, revealing to the world that American reach starkly contrasts with its self-professed global aspirations. U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and bilateral military exercises with Southeast Asian countries drop-off precipitously. Seoul and Tokyo turn into regional rivals while the U.S. is unwilling or no longer able to mediate between its squabbling allies. The United States commits to various new initiatives against Beijing, even attempting Russian-style influence operations across the “Great Firewall” and in China’s neighboring countries, seeking to displace or overturn China’s position with minimal resources.

Scenario: The Chinese embassy in a Central Asian country hosted a high-visibility diplomatic reception to celebrate a landmark treaty that enhances China’s influence in Central Asia. The reception comes under a coordinated attack launched by an extremist faction of a political movement banned in China and operating in exile from the U.S. Among the casualties is the second-highest-ranking member of the communist party’s politburo standing committee, reputedly a policy hawk on PRC-U.S. relations. The U.S. embassy is later noted as having delegated attendance to its lowest ranking foreign service officer, the cultural attaché, who left shortly before the attack. The leaders of the political movement, denounce the splinter faction but refuse to condemn the attack, giving fuel to long-standing Chinese claims that the U.S. is “sponsoring terrorism”. China’s state media plays up the “heroic sacrifice” of its “leading comrade”. The Central Asian government refuses Washington’s offers of forensic expertise and quickly concedes to Beijing the lead for investigation and interrogation of the lone surviving attacker. Within weeks, Beijing announces the attack was directed and sponsored by the CIA and vows retaliation at a place and time of China’s choosing.

“Strong opinions, lightly held.” – Institute for the Future

When angels cast pearls, the devil’s advocate plays swineherd. Much of the present-day discourse surrounding the likely chief causes of a future U.S.-PRC conflict has been extensively covered by other parties, thus this speculative foray into grounds less well-trodden. The alternative futures described and its attendant scenarios are considered implausible in the present but the preconditions that may lead to those paths already exist today. Great power ambitions and (mis)calculations of future leaders may entice or force the actors to perceive an advantage or leverage in the conditions as and when they arise. It is hoped that this thought exercise has shed light on unexpected blind-spots that may lead to a wider range of unexpected outcomes that could arise from the actions of the actors as they seek to advance or arrest their waxing and waning fortunes.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.

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