In just over a week’s time, on December 2nd, COP24, the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Katowice in Poland. In the two days before the G20, the grouping of the world’s most powerful states will meet in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At both meetings the escalating confrontation between the US and China is expected to become more acute as the two superpowers’ divergent world views will likely play out publicly.
The two meetings are expected to demonstrate the philosophical and practical gulf that exists between the US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Manichaean world view, and the interdependent, multi-dimensional rules-based world of the kind envisaged by China’s President Xi Jinping.
For the Caribbean, located within the arc of influence of the United States, but drawn to and in tune with the global approach of China, a country thousands of miles away, the practical economic and developmental consequences make this dichotomy particularly troubling.
At worst it implies, as with the Cold War, countries should take sides. At best it requires small states to find a way to steer a course between the two views in ways that require subtlety and a potentially ambiguous new form of non-alignment.
For the Caribbean, the issues surrounding any US-led confrontation with China are unlikely to revolve around ideology and politics, but to be much more about development, and how in real terms external support might spur investment, economic growth, job creation, and directly or indirectly support social provision.
Unfortunately, this is not the way Washington is seeking to frame the issue. Its National Security Strategy envisages the development of an approach that sees it engaged globally in a new form of economic and military superpower rivalry with China.
Speaking at the recently concluded annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in Papua New Guinea, the US, Vice President Mike Pence was direct in his criticism of China’s role in small states.
Offering a vision of future international relations that is likely to cause particular problems for much of the Caribbean, the Pacific and parts of Africa, he told the summit: “Do not accept foreign debt that could compromise your sovereignty. Protect your interests. Preserve your independence. And, just like America, always put your country first. Know that the United States offers a better option. We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don’t coerce or compromise your independence. The United States deals openly, fairly. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.”
His remarks could not have been more different in tone and content from those of China’s President, Xi Jinping. Using language that resonates in the Caribbean and other parts of the developing world, he told APEC participants: “When it comes to choosing a development path for a country, no one is in a better position to make the decision than the people of that country. Just as one does not expect a single prescription to cure all diseases, one should not expect a particular model of development to fit all countries. Blindly copying the development model of others will only be counterproductive, so will be any attempt to impose one’s own development model on others”.
On China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative, he noted that it was “not designed to serve any hidden geopolitical agenda… is not targeted against anyone and it does not exclude anyone. It is not an exclusive club that is closed to non-members, nor is it a ‘trap’ as some people have labelled it.”
The practical consequence was that the issues of the climate change and development that most in the Pacific wanted to focus on in Port Moresby were partly side-lined, and for the first time ever there was no final APEC communique because the US and China could not agree to language on trade.
For the Caribbean, the implications of a growing US-China confrontation and the very different world view that the two nations have is already causing concern.
In September, responding to critical remarks about China’ role in the Americas by Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, Antigua’s Prime Minister was unusually direct. Prime Minister Browne observed that the US should be “ashamed” for criticising a country that is assisting in the development of the Caribbean, while noting that those opposed to China’s deepening influence in the hemisphere needed to deliver impactful development assistance. “There has been a void created by the benign neglect of the powerful states,” he said.
The issue is unlikely to go away.
If the US and China cannot reconcile their differences, the danger is that the region may divide further, particularly if, for example, the US were to pursue a more coercive trade policy. The Trump administration has already expressed a preference for reciprocal trade agreements with individual countries, and very soon the region will need to address with Washington what happens when the Caribbean Basin Initiative and its WTO extension expire in 2020.
In Washington, policy towards the hemisphere is now largely interpreted through the position that individual nations take in relation to Venezuela. With US administration rhetoric becoming more aggressive towards Beijing, it is quite possible that those nations whose relationships are regarded as antithetical to the US position on China may also come under similar pressure.
If Washington expects to succeed in the Caribbean, it needs to embrace and fund the region’s economic development needs, accept climate change, and understand the value of multilateralism. If it does not, no one should be surprised if the region rebalances its economic and political relations in ways that afford Beijing equal weight.
There is of course much that China still needs to address in its relations with the Caribbean. It ought to be less opaque about its lending policies and should be doing more practically to support the region’s desire to increase the export of goods and services. It should also develop a regional role for the Renminbi, help develop inter-regional maritime transport, ensure that all its investments are zero-carbon emitting, and be more open to a frank public dialogue about its objectives.
The growing confrontation between Beijing and Washington over trade could lead to an economic and political cold war. If this happens it will require the Caribbean to find ways to avoid being divided into mutually antagonistic camps or having to choose between friends.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com
Previous columns can be found at https://www.caribbean-council.org/research-analysis/