China is raising its strategic influence in the Caribbean as it takes advantage of the continuing US withdrawal from what George W. Bush called his country’s “third border”.
The initial trickle of aid was tied to recognising China’s “One China” policy and shunning Taiwan, but recently the investments have become bigger, the projects more strategic and the Chinese presence on the ground more obvious.
David Jessop, head of the Caribbean Council, a think-tank and consultancy, said China’s policy towards the region appears to be in flux, but is clearly deepening.
Of the Chinese-backed projects, the biggest is the multibillion-dollar Baha Mar resort under construction in the Bahamas. More recently, Jamaica in April secured a Chinese loan of almost $300m for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of roads and bridges.
China’s growing presence in the Caribbean stands in contrast to the seeming lack of interest of Washington. With the exception of special cases such as Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico, where the US has a long and sometimes turbulent history, the US disengagement has frustrated local politicians, given that many Caribbean countries are mired in severe economic and financial difficulties.
Keith Mitchell, the prime minister of Grenada, said: “China has expressed great interest in helping the Caribbean, possibly because it senses frustration across the region.”
Victor Bulmer-Thomas, an expert on the region and author of a recent book on the Caribbean’s economic history, said the lack of US interest and concurrent increase in the Chinese presence “are clearly related . . . Among the local policy makers there is regret over the US disengagement, and many are welcoming China as a new friend.”
Much of the US’s activity has been driven by private sector investment or tourism, both of which collapsed after the global financial crisis struck in 2008. But China’s involvement has been on a state-to-state level, and Beijing’s growing interest in the Caribbean has baffled some observers.
Xu Shicheng, the former vice-chairman for the Chinese Association of Latin American Studies and an honorary member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing is developing relations with the wider Latin American region for economic reasons, not “ideological” ones, highlighting ample reserves that need to be invested somewhere.
Indeed, so far there have been few signs of China exerting political sway apart from on the Taiwan issue, and little indication that Beijing has a special “Caribbean policy” separate from its wider strategy in Latin America, which is primarily driven by its thirst for commodities and markets.
Yet the economic attractions of the Caribbean are dubious. Aside from Trinidad and Tobago’s natural gas, and some mineral deposits in countries such as Guyana and Suriname, the region has negligible natural resources. The populations in the region are also too low to be meaningful for Chinese exports.
China’s interest is more likely to be political, local commentators reason. While small, the Caribbean has outsized influence on international bodies thanks to its many votes – each sovereign state, no matter how tiny, has a vote in the UN.
The developing relationship is not without wrinkles. Some countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Haiti, still recognise Taiwan – and receive aid from the country as a result. Those that have shifted to mainland China do not always like every element of the relationship.
Although China has paid for, or lent money towards, many projects, it often insists that Chinese workers should do the construction – cutting local labourers out. Once the development is complete, some of the Chinese workers stay and set up businesses in competition with the locals.
Sir Ronald Sanders, a former ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda, highlighted a dispute in his home country, where local fishermen complain that Chinese workers are depleting the lobster banks closest to the shore. “The Chinese are filling a vacuum and giving [local governments] a breathing space – albeit limited – in a difficult situation,” he said. “But there are unpleasant side effects.”
Sometimes, however, the frustration flows the other way. When Grenada inaugurated its Beijing-financed sports stadium in 2007, the hosts played the Taiwanese national anthem by mistake – to the chagrin of the Chinese envoy who oversaw the ceremony.
Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
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