Last month I traveled to Panama, Colombia and Argentina. The purpose of my trip was to get an update on the fight for freedom and liberty in Venezuela, to highlight the important economic relationships between Latin America and my state of Florida and to continue building on the progress made to stop narco-trafficking.
On all of those fronts we made important progress and had great conversations about the future.
I came away with another impression that I, quite honestly, hadn't expected. But it's one that is stark and unmistakable. All across Latin America, we're seeing the creeping influence of China in our hemisphere.
We know that China is a bad actor. China is not our friend. China sees the United States as its global adversary and is taking the steps necessary to "win" the great power conflict of the 21st Century.
We know they've been stealing our technology and our intellectual property. We know they manipulate their currency. We know they've been developing bases in the South China Sea. We know they've flooded the United States with dangerous fentanyl. We know their state sponsored technology companies like ZTE and Huawei have been accused of fraud, violating the Iran sanctions and stealing intellectual property. We know China consistently violates human rights. We know that China suppresses freedom of speech.
We know what China is. And yet, how many Americans realize that in countries just a few thousand miles (and in some cases a few hundred miles) away, China is taking every opportunity it can to gain influence and exert control. Latin America is the new battleground in the greatest geopolitical conflict of our time.
In Panama, the Chinese government is building its own port in Colon to exert more control over international trade between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres and drive out competition. Street restaurants in Panama have menus in English, Spanish and – you guessed it – Chinese.
Meanwhile, Colombia is experiencing a mass-influx of refugees from Venezuela. Venezuela's president Nicolás Maduro's policies are not only causing the deaths of thousands of his own people, he's also created a refugee crisis with millions of Venezuelans fleeing his brutal regime. Most have gone to Colombia, which is struggling to keep up with the migration.
China's president Xi Jinping knows what Maduro is doing to his own people. He knows that he's intentionally starving them, that he's using Cuban security forces to harass dissidents and beat children in the streets. Xi doesn't care. China is a willing participant in Maduro's genocide.
China continues to prop up the Maduro regime, along with Cuba, Russia and Iran. Why? It's pretty simple. Venezuela, before the tyranny of Hugo Chavez and Maduro, was an economic hub with huge reserves of oil and other natural resources. It can become that again and China wants in on the ground floor.
Even after the revelations of their dubious dealings, Maduro announced that Venezuela would make major investments in Huawei and ZTE despite not being able to even feed his own people. China's support for Maduro is already paying off for them.
Almost 3,000 miles due south of Bogota, in Argentina, China is set to build a nuclear facility after signing an agreement with President Mauricio Macri. The deal includes a $10 billion loan from China.
Make no mistake. This is not by accident. Everything China does is on purpose. And right now, under our very noses, its purpose is to gain a foothold in Latin America by any means necessary, even if it means propping up ruthless dictators.
Politicians too rarely look at anything besides what's directly in front of them. It's hard for them to look beyond next week, let alone beyond the next election. So, I'll say something that very few people are willing to say. The so-called trade war with China is causing some pain in our country right now.
I believe some short-term pain is worth it if we're taking real steps to combat the greatest geopolitical foe we have. If we take a stand against China now, American businesses and American consumers will come out on top. Our manufacturing sector will be stronger. America will export more products. Our trade secrets will be protected. The average American consumer will benefit.
If we don't face this threat head-on right now, we will still face it eventually. But if we wait, we'll be in a much weaker position than we are now. China will just continue to walk all over us.
I think President Donald Trump is doing the right thing by standing up to China now. But there's another step that we can all take to stem the tide of China's growing influence in Latin America and around the world – support American businesses.
American taxpayers are funding China's aggression every day. Every time we buy a product "made in China" we are putting another dollar into the pocket of the people stealing our technology, denying their people basic human rights and supporting genocide in Venezuela. It's time to take a stand.
In my state, we take immense pride in products "Made in Florida." It's a driving force that led to our incredible economic turnaround. A return to this pride in home-grown businesses and products ensures America remains strong as the undisputed leader of the global economy.
I'm committed to supporting American businesses over Chinese products. I hope you'll join me.
Washington politicians have let this happen. They're too concerned with short-term political success and have ignored the long-term threats to our way of life. It needs to end, and it needs to end now.
Rick Scott is the junior United States Senator from Florida. He previously served as Governor of the state.
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.