Sino-Caribbean relations: Priorities and tradeoffs

The visit to the Caribbean earlier this month by Chinese Leader Xi Jinping and the simultaneous announcement that the region would be the beneficiary of yet another huge tranche of financial aid from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) lends a predictable continuity to Beijing’s pursuit of the use of economic diplomacy as a tool with which to deepen its influence in the region.

This is not the Cold War era. China’s interest in the Caribbean has nothing to do with exporting ideology; rather, its mission is to enhance its sphere of influence and the Caribbean is part of the global space within which it pursues that expansion. China seeks to buy its way into the region.
By visiting the region less than a year after securing the key positions of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Committee and three months after becoming President, Xi Jinping appears to be signalling that he wants to ‘fast track’ Sino-Caribbean relations. Accordingly, there are good reasons for the Caribbean to understand, first, what the Chinese really want and, secondly, whether Chinese interests coincide with our priorities for the region.

The Caribbean has been slow in seeking to learn more about the Chinese. Diplomatic relations between the region and the PRC – which, incidentally, began with the establishment of ties with Guyana in 1971 – entered their forty-second year earlier this year. That ought to have afforded us more than sufficient time to get to know the Chinese better. Up until re-latively recently, however, ties were limited, mostly to relatively modest instances of Chinese aid and occasions of cultural exchange, so that  in the absence of real people-to-people ties we really know little about each other.

Now that the Chinese have good reason to get to know the Caribbean better, some of the initiatives have reflected a lack of understanding of the way we do business in the Caribbean. The sudden and sustained influx of Chinese traders and Chinese goods into the region has been responded to with suspicion by host populations in some parts. Even then, some governments in the region (Guyana is a good example) have allowed the relationships between the Chinese and local populations to persist without any really meaningful intervention designed to improve those relationships. Here in Guyana the political administration often appears to be far more eager to respond to China’s economic courtship than to sensitize the population to the ‘culture shock’ arising out of the arrival here of relatively large numbers of Chinese over a relatively short period of time.

As the recent spat between the Guyana Geology & Mines Commission and the Chinese company Bai Shan Lin over the latter’s illegal mining of laterite at Moblissa illustrates,  major Chinese investors are sometimes far too preoccupied always to be mindful of local laws, preoccupied as they are with their substantive missions. Reining in the indifference of Chinese investors to excesses such as those manifested in the Bai Shan Lin instance could be one of the biggest challenges to face Caribbean governments in the period ahead.

The Bai Shan Lin incident apart, the earlier furore over the exclusion of local workers from the construction of the Marriott Hotel has created an environment that contains elements of both sourness and suspicion. That atmosphere, though muted by the passage of a few months, still exists.

What does Beijing want in the Caribbean? China’s primary interests in the region, previously articulated by Sino-Caribbean followers in the Caribbean were re-stated earlier this year in an article authored by UWI Lecturer Annita Montoute in the February 2013 issue of The Caribbean Journal of International Relations & Diplomacy. Briefly put, they are the continued pursuit of a diplomatic mission aimed at ensuring region-wide support for a ‘One-China policy’; and the utilization of the Caribbean as a region in which it can increase its global market share as an exporter. (As Montoute puts it Sino-Caribbean relations must be seen “in the context of the forces of economic globalization which have created opportunities for the rise of China as a global player.”)

China’s interest in the region also derives from its domestic pursuit of food and energy security – which accounts for its specific interest in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana. Finally, Beijing sees the region as an entry point into the hemisphere for Chinese goods targeting markets in North America and Europe, while valuing the symbolism of its influence in the region in the context of its pursuit of big power status.  As Montoute puts it, “China’s behaviour is indicative of its ambitions towards having a global reach and exerting influence across various regions of the globe.”

Caribbean governments would appear to be enthusiastically embracing the Chinese presence in the region though the question may well be asked as to whether they are pursuing their corresponding responsibility to seek to answer the question, what’s in it for us? The conventional wisdom is that Beijing serves as an important source of development aid for the region at a time when financial support from the West is drying up. That may be so except, of course, that there is a growing climate of opinion around the globe that suggests that China now sees itself as a global power and is becoming increasingly inclined to behave like successors to the Western powers in terms of the way in which it perceives the Caribbean.

More than that, the regional drumbeat about deepening trade relations between the Caribbean and China invariably neglects to mention that it is essentially a matter of ‘one way traffic,’ a circumstance that is consistent with China’s overall goal of expanding its global market share; so that in the short to medium term at least, Sino-Caribbean relations have little to offer the region’s manufacturing sector.

Montoute makes a further equally arresting point about the future of Sino-Caribbean relations that has to do with differing value systems, pointing out that while China’s “no conditionalities attached to development assistance” may be “particularly appealing” to the Caribbean, the Caribbean may be overlooking the fact that China does not insist on values such as good governance, democracy and human rights as a prerequisite for engagement on trade and development cooperation.”  Beyond that she insists that the Chinese do have their own conditionalities – as has been manifested in Guyana with the Marriott Hotel construction controversy – that include “the use of Chinese labour, design, and technology associated with Chinese aid and investment that may make engagement with them less than conditionalities – free.”

Whether or not human rights, the rule of law and good governance ought to be a consideration in longer-term Sino-Caribbean ties is a consideration which the region would do well to ponder. After all, relations between and among states are driven, first and foremost, by vital interests and if Beijing has been making no secret of the anticipated outcomes of China’s deepening relations with the Caribbean, then the people of the region have a right to be told what the Caribbean’s expectations of those relations are, and whether the region may not be required to make some important trade-offs to sustain the Sino-Caribbean relationship.

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