The past few months have radically changed the world, and a laundry list of lessons to be learned and reforms to be made has already emerged to better prepare us for the future. But one thing is clear: China is responsible for a cover-up of the coronavirus that perpetuated the contagion and disrupted the entire globe. For this reason, and many others, the United States should be alarmed by the continually increasing presence of China in the Western Hemisphere. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had their eye on Latin America since the turn of the century. They have employed predatory economics and manipulation under the guise of strategic and mutually beneficial partnerships. The result is a creeping influence of the CCP into our own sphere of influence.

This power struggle is nothing new, and it’s only been exacerbated in the fallout of COVID-19. The focus in Washington is on targeted strategies to defend the United States from infiltration campaigns and the immediate threats the CCP poses to our national security. However, this multilateral battle is taking place in a global theater. Self-defense strategies will be worthless if we never go on the offensive and allow China to be the only power moving in Latin America. The United States can and must counter China’s engagement in the Western Hemisphere with engagement of our own. What can we offer to Latin America that China cannot, and how can we be a better ally?

One of the most powerful assets the United States has at its disposal is the American consumer, but we’ve wasted this tool by allowing our consumer economy to become fully intertwined with Chinese manufacturers. Not only does this create an unaffordable dependency, but it results in American consumers constantly pumping money into a government that has proven to be an adversary. Trade wars, while sometimes effective, are temporary and reactionary. The United States should begin untangling our economy from China and investing in the markets of the Western Hemisphere. We must counter the strategic and economic pursuits of China in Latin America through long-term, systemic change rather than tit for tat tariffs.

The Northern Triangle is the gateway between North America and South America. Considering the CCP is already making significant headway into multiple Latin American countries through its Belt and Road Initiative, it is imperative that the United States holds the line and invests in the region. Washington needs to demonstrate its ability to think globally yet work locally to effectively build lasting partnerships. Through infrastructure and economic development projects, the United States can work with partners in the region to support initiatives that are mutually beneficial to everyone in the Western Hemisphere.

A first step toward this goal should be building a logistics hub using existing railways to connect key ports on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. This specific project would involve the rehabilitation of existing rail lines, the extension of others, and the upgrade of main ports in each country. It would serve as a natural backbone to develop the region, improve overall market conditions, and attract foreign investment and manufacturing. A project of this scale would be a much-needed step to promote long-term security and stability in the region, serving to create jobs, stem irregular migration, and better connect participating countries to existing supply chains and the larger global market.

Moreover, the project would serve as a strategic building block for U.S. engagement in the greater region. Our involvement in Central America has been very limited since the ratification of the CAFTA-DR 15 years ago. This must change. Not only is this the right move for our own national security, but this is something our Central American allies are signaling they want us to do. They want the United States to preserve its global leadership role. Their governments understand the danger China’s influence can pose, and local leaders want to see the United States engaging again in their communities and economies. Through such infrastructure and economic development projects, the United States can work with partners in the region to support initiatives that are mutually beneficial to everyone in the Western Hemisphere.

The United States cannot afford to waste any more time allowing China to position itself as a closer ally or better neighbor to the nations in our own hemisphere. We must incentivize American producers, manufacturers, and consumers to engage with Central America and build up the infrastructure and partnerships to make this an advantageous relationship for all involved. We cannot wait for China’s next move to determine our national security policy. The United States must aggressively pursue a holistic strategy for the Northern Triangle and the greater region that not only defends our own security, but also the security of our side of the world.

Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE is former Speaker of the House, Rick CrawfordRichard (Rick) CrawfordArkansas program that places unemployed guards, reservists in agriculture jobs can be a model for nation Trump campaign launches new fundraising program with House Republicans Trump immigration vow stirs serious blowback MORE represents the 1st District of Arkansas and Manuel Alfredo Espina Pinto is former Guatemalan ambassador to the United States.

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