The competition for influence in the Americas is now online

The Biden administration identified China and Russia as strategic competitors in its 2022 National Security Strategy, and this rivalry with malign state actors is on full display in the western hemisphere. For decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia have been expanding their influence across the Americas via the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic domains. Now they are engaging in new areas to include emerging technologies, cyberspace, and outer space. These strategic competitors have been supporting autocratic regimes and threatening democracy, prosperity, and security in the region. The Chinese have aggressive investment and commercial projects underway to secure new markets and strategic resources to expand their global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since the Cold War, Russia has challenged US influence in the Americas by sponsoring like-minded regimes including Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua and fomenting unrest in democratic states. This article will examine PRC efforts to expand its economic footprint in the region in the emerging technologies and critical infrastructure arenas. It will also analyze Russian foreign influence operations in the cyber domain with disinformation campaigns intended to destabilize democratic governments allied with the United States. To counter growing Chinese and Russian influence in the cyber and emerging technologies domains in the region, the United States must adopt a more proactive stance by doubling down on constructive investment and commercial activities with partner nations, and educating the region on US engagements that contribute to economic growth and democracy, and discredit disinformation campaigns in the Americas.

China’s dominance in emerging technologies in the Americas

China has expanded its economic influence, becoming a key trading partner across Latin America over the past two decades. Since Beijing joined the World Trade Organization, the bilateral trade in goods increased significantly from $14.6 billion in 2001 to $315 billion in 2020. In the same period, the trade in goods between the United States and Latin America nearly doubled, reaching $758.2 billion from $364.3 billion.1Sophie Wintgens, “China’s Growing Footprint in Latin America,” fDi Intelligence (a Financial Times unit), March 10, 2023, China has secured natural resources, investment opportunities, and markets for its exports across the region and now, twenty-one of the thirty-one Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) countries are participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. A major development interest of China has been in infrastructure, with the BRI providing financing for ports, transportation networks, power plants, and telecommunications facilities. China is now aggressively expanding its activities in emerging technologies and critical infrastructure across the region.

While many insist Chinese interests in the Americas are purely economic, US Southern Commander Gen. Laura J. Richardson stated on March 2023 before Congress that the PRC now possesses the ability to extract resources, establish ports, and potentially build dual-use space facilities, which if true would make the area of responsibility of the US Southern Command the home of the most space facilities out of all the combatant commands. In addition, China is able to manipulate local governments through predatory investment practices.2“2023 Posture Statement to Congress,” Excerpts from Commander’s House Armed Services Committee Testimony, US Southern Command (website), March 8, 2023, The US Southern Command believes that PRC activities have included investments across realms such as infrastructure and technology and malicious activities such as intellectual property theft, the spread of ensuring long-term CCP access and influence in the political, economic, and security sectors of the western hemisphere.3Center for a Secure Free Society, “China Expands Strategic Ports in Latin America,” VRIC Monitor No. 28(2022),; VRIC stands for Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China. More recently, China has expanded its ventures in the telecommunications, cloud computing, and surveillance sectors. Gen. Richardson repeatedly underscores the security threat posed by the expansion of activities from malign state actors like China and Russia in the region in her public remarks.

Huawei, the Chinese technology firm, perhaps best exemplifies how dominant China is becoming in the emerging technology and communications space. Huawei controls a majority of the region’s telecommunications infrastructure and is poised to play a significant role in future technological developments, including 5G and the Internet of Things.4R. Evan Ellis, New Developments in China-Latin America Engagement, Analysis, Peruvian Army Center for Strategic Studies, December 20, 2022, Unfortunately, there are few competitive options to Huawei for 5G in terms of service and pricing available in Latin America. Huawei is lobbying hard to secure 5G contracts in countries, such as Colombia, and has established cloud computing with data centers in Mexico, Chile, and Brazil.5Dan Swinhoe, “Huawei Planning Second Mexico Data Center, More across Latin America,” Data Center Dynamics, August 26, 2021, Gen. Richardson has expressed concern that 5G deals between the region and China could undermine the information-sharing partnerships that the region holds with the United States.6Naveed Jamali and Tom O’Connor, “China Influence Reaches U.S. ‘Red Zone,’” Newsweek, July 25, 2023,

Across the region, Huawei consistently offers incentives for companies to utilize Huawei clouds for their core processes and to store their intellectual property. In Panama, Huawei designed a digital free trade zone, consisting of a $38 million project with involvement from nearly one hundred companies in product distribution, as well as cloud computing services.7Hope Wilkinson, “Explainer: B3W vs BRI in Latin America,” Council of the Americas, December 14, 2021, According to Strand Consult, a research firm focused on the telecommunications industry, data centers built and run by Chinese firms, including Huawei, routinely process US internet traffic. Alongside governments of all levels, private companies, including healthcare providers, use Chinese data centers.”8Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood, “Huawei Data Centres and Clouds Already Cover Latin America—Chinese Tech Influence Is a Gift to Countries and Politicians That Don’t Respect Human Rights,” Strand Consult, February 7, 2022,

China has been increasingly active in the surveillance and security sector. Chinese state linked companies such as Huawei and Hikvision have combined cameras, biometrics, data processing, and other tools to offer “safe” and “smart cities” solutions throughout the region, including in Ecuador and Bolivia.9R. Evan Ellis, “Chinese Surveillance Complex Advancing in Latin America,” Newsmax, April 12, 2019, id/911484/. Such services have become increasingly attractive as violence and insecurity have been amplified by the economic impact of COVID-19.With few alternative service providers available, Huawei is emerging as the dominant force in emerging technologies and surveillance services across Latin America and the Caribbean. The Heritage Foundation has observed that “Huawei often functions as an extension of the Chinese Communist Party’s security enterprise. If Huawei develops 5G networks in Latin America, China will essentially control the communications, infrastructure, and sensitive technology of the entire region.”10Ana Rosa Quintana, “Latin American Countries Must Not Allow Huawei to Develop Their 5G Networks,” Issue Brief, Heritage Foundation, January 25, 2021, The United States must recognize this Chinese expansion into critical infrastructure sectors in LAC as a formidable threat to US influence in the region.

Russian disinformation campaigns in the Western Hemisphere

Russia has tried to counter US influence in the region by supporting communist and left-leaning regimes and movements since the Cold War. Moscow has conducted foreign influence operations in the region that have spread disinformation and sown discord, resulting in an undermining of democratic institutions and values. At the 2022 Summit of the Americas, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of rising disinformation across Latin America, especially from China and Russia, and stated that the United States was committed to countering it.11Claudia Flores-Saviaga and Deyra Guerrero, “In Latin America, Fact-Checking Organizations Attempt to Counter Russia’s Disinformation,” Power 3.0 (blog), International Forum for Democratic Studies, July 6, 2022, In recent elections in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, disinformation propagated by online trolls and fake social media accounts sowed the seeds of doubt in electoral processes. Latin America has one of the highest risk perceptions regarding misinformation at 74.2 percent of internet users.12Aleksi Knuutila, Lisa-Maria Neudert, and Philip N. Howard, “Who Is Afraid of Fake News? Modeling Risk Perceptions of Misinformation in 142 Countries,” Harvard Kennedy School, Misinformation Review, April 12, 2022,

Russia has a clear track record of manipulating the information environment, often using influence operations and information warfare tactics that are now further magnified in cyberspace. Russia’s presence in Latin America has only become more evident since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia has capitalized on its expertise in the cyber realm by manipulating social media to spur on massive protests in several countries such as Chile and Colombia.

Russia has established a significant media and information footprint throughout the region with Russia Today and Sputnik News. Russia Today’s Spanish-language affiliate, Actualidad RT, has over 3.5 million followers on X (formerly Twitter) and it’s YouTube channel, now blocked, had over six million subscribers. On Facebook, RT’s Spanish-language page is now more popular than its English-language counterpart, “pushing Russia’s preferred narratives in Latin America, stoking anti-Americanism and praising authoritarian regimes, all under the veil of a supposedly objective platform,” wrote León Krauze in a Washington Post opinion column.13Leon Kreuze, “Russia’s Top Propagandist in Latin America Has a Change of Heart,” Washington Post, May 8, 2022, According to a DisinfoLab analysis, “The majority of RT en Español’s website traffic comes from Venezuela (21.29 percent), Argentina (16.93 percent), Mexico (13.33 percent), and Colombia (5.52 percent).”14India Turner, “Why Latin America is Susceptible to Russian War Disinformation,” DisinfoLab, Global Research Institute, September 13, 2022, Russia’s media presence in Latin America demonstrates its use of the information instrument of national power to challenge US influence.

Russia has used Moscow-linked social media accounts in an attempt to stir up civil unrest in South American countries calling for the resignation of Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela (namely in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile) since 2018. Russian bots and trolls were found to have exacerbated the massive protests that broke out in these countries.15Center for Strategic & International Studies, “An Enduring Relationship—from Russia, with Love,” Blog, September 24, 2020, Russian activities sought to increase polarization and decrease confidence in democratic institutions across the region, especially in countries with a pro-US stance in foreign policy, like in Colombia and possibly Chile and Mexico.

As the closest, long-standing ally of the United States in the region, Colombia has been a top target of Russian espionage and disinformation campaigns. Iván Duque’s government, which was in power from 2018 to 2022, confronted Russia for the malign influence of promoting social protests from 2020 to 2022. In 2020, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez blamed Russia and Venezuela for fomenting protests and discord using social media platforms.16Lara Jakes, “As Protests in South America Surged, So Did Russian Trolls on Twitter, U.S. Finds,” New York Times, January 19, 2020, In the past two years, Colombia has experienced sophisticated cyberattacks targeting its energy, military, and political sectors that only a few nations could employ, with some attacks being traced back to Russian and Venezuelan proxy servers.17Guido L. Torres, “Nonlinear Warfare: Is Russia Waging a Silent War in Latin America?,” Small Wars Journal, January 24, 2022,

The case of Russian national Sergei Vagin sheds light on how Russia tried to use asymmetrical warfare to destabilize Colombia. On March 30, 2022, the Colombian National Police and the Attorney General’s Office arrested Sergei Vagin on a variety of charges including aggravated conspiracy to commit a crime and abusive access to computer systems.18Loren Moss, “Alleged Russian Spy Charged . . . with Running a Gambling Mafia,” Finance Colombia, April 12, 2022, According to the presiding judge, Vagin is accused of financing illicit activities through fraudulent online betting platforms, receiving money through third parties from countries such as Russia and Ukraine. He also has alleged ties with the ELN terrorist group engaged in arms and drug trafficking.19Las pruebas que comprobarían la participación de ciudadano ruso en actividades ilegales (Evidence Proving the Involvement of Russian Citizen in Illegal Activities),” Noticias RCN, Abril 1, 2022, On April 1, 2022, President Duque voiced support for the investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office against Vagin on illicit financing and the alleged interference of Russian mafias in Colombian territory. He reassured that there were indications that would prove the use of the money to finance protest activities related to the national strike of 2021. According to several intelligence reports, the Prosecutor’s Office was able to establish that Sergei Vagin had already participated in previous marches of November 21, 2020, and March 8, 2022.”20“Hay indicios de que financiaban las protestas”: Duque sobre ruso capturado (“There are Indications that They were Financing the Protests”: Duque on Captured Russian),” Abril 1, 2022, Moreover, “a CIA dossier published by the newspaper El Tiempo states that Sergei Vagin, also known as alias ‘Servac,’ mobilized important sums of money from Russia in order to finance violent actions in the main cities in Colombia; and he had ties with members of the so-called First Line that organized the social protests.”21“Sergei Vagin, el ruso capturado por la Fiscalía, aseguró que no tiene nada que ver con el Paro Nacional (Sergei Vagin, the Russian Captured by the Prosecutor’s Office, Assured that He has Nothing to do with the National Strike),” Infobae, Marzo 30, 2022, The case of Colombia demonstrates how Russia has been exploiting foreign influence operations and disinformation campaigns as a form of asymmetrical warfare against the United States and its democratic allies in LAC. Russia uses these asymmetrical operations as it does not possess the same economic might China does to expand its influence across the region.

Measures to counter China and Russia’s expanding influence in emerging technologies and cyberspace in the Americas

In light of the growing influence of China and Russia in the emerging technologies and cyber arenas, the United States must improve its ability to detect, understand, and counter its strategic competitors’ activities in Latin America and the Caribbean. In a 2023 Commanders Series discussion at the Atlantic Council, Gen. Richardson acknowledged that the threats to prosperity, security, and democracy posed by the PRC and Russia in the western hemisphere, saying: “The US needs to step up its game in our neighborhood to rival malign state and non-state actors.”22“A Conversation with Laura J. Richardson on Security across the Americas,” Commander Series, Atlantic Council, January 19, 2023,

The United States should increase engagement with partner countries in the region on the political, economic, information, and technology fronts to safeguard democratic institutions, competitive economies, the free flow of accurate information, and the rules-based order that both Russia and China are challenging.

Countering China’s influence

To counter China’s growing dominance in the emerging technology and critical infrastructure sectors in the western hemisphere, the United States should:

  • Deepen economic engagements with partner nations by expanding existing free trade agreements and brokering new ones that can include issues like near-shoring, manufacturing, and the digital economy across the region.
  • Implement global infrastructure initiatives that were included in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better World (B3W), which was brokered with the Group of Seven as a counterweight to China’s BRI, in four areas of focus: climate, health, digital technology, and equality with an emphasis on gender.
  • Identify public- and private-sector opportunities to collaborate with LAC countries in emerging technologies like the cloud, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing to challenge China’s growing monopoly on the critical infrastructure and communications sectors.
  • Implement the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act (Pub. L. No. 117-167), which seeks to both strengthen the US semiconductor supply chain by promoting the research and development of advanced technologies domestically and identifying LAC partners who can directly contribute to these efforts.
  • Adopt legislative initiatives, such as the proposed Americas Trade and Investment Act, that seek to “prioritize partnerships in the western hemisphere to improve trade, bring manufacturing back to our shores, and compete with China,” as well as capitalize on the “full economic potential of the United States and Latin America.”23In January, US Senator Bill Cassidy, MD, and US Representative Maria Elvira Salazar released a discussion draft of the Americas Trade and Investment Act (Americas Act),

Countering Russia’s influence

To counter Russia’s expanded influence operations and disinformation campaigns in cyberspace to undermine democracy in the hemisphere, the United States should:

  • Engage in more proactive strategic communications in the region to inform and educate on important US government and private-sector contributions aimed at protecting and enhancing prosperity, security, and democracy in the Americas, and correct the record of the disinformation circulated by the Russians and their proxies.
  • Improve US understanding of Russian disinformation campaigns’ content, tactics, techniques, and procedures through our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and tailor more timely and effective ways to counter them along with partner nations.
  • Leverage the State Department Global Engagement Center and its programs to assist LAC countries to counter disinformation.24The State Department Global Engagement Center’s mission is to direct, lead, synchronize, integrate, and coordinate US government efforts to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and nonstate propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining or influencing the policies, security, or stability of the United States, its allies, and partner nations.
  • Share US efforts to counter disinformation with US partner nations through, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Foreign Influence Task Force, which could shed light on investigations, operations, and best practices in partnering with private-sector technology companies.
  • Promote media literacy and education to raise awareness of disinformation across Latin America.
  • Encourage social media companies like Meta to identify and remove certain Russian state-affiliated accounts, such as Sputnik and RT en Español, from their platforms to stop the flow of fake news.

The threat of strategic competition from China and Russia in the Americas is real and is manifesting itself in new domains, such as emerging technologies and cyberspace. As several recent elections have brought left-leaning governments sympathetic to the PRC and Russia to power in the western hemisphere, the United States must actively invest political, economic, and technological capital in our neighbors to the south to remain the partner of choice for Latin America and Caribbean partner countries. The stakes are high. China and Russia seek to undermine the rules-based order, democracy, and free market principles in the Americas and challenge US dominance in the region. However, by harnessing American ingenuity and innovation, capital, technology, and democratic values, the United States has significant opportunities to curb and counter the influence of malign state actors like China and Russia in the Americas—and must seize such opportunities without delay.

About the author

Celina Realuyo is Professor of Practice at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University where she focuses on US national security, illicit networks, transnational organized crime, counterterrorism and threat finance issues in the Americas.

The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and the world.

The Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center broadens understanding of regional transformations and delivers constructive, results-oriented solutions to inform how the public and private sectors can advance hemispheric prosperity.

Image: A man is reflected in a glass adversiting with the Huawei's company logo at a bus stop in Mexico City, Mexico February 22, 2019. Picture taken February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril