China is the ‘only game in town’ in the Caribbean these days. It has quickly established itself as an important power in the Caribbean region with great levels of visibility. Its increasing engagement with the Caribbean is often framed as a ‘stepping into a void’, left by world powers like the USA and the EU.
As you are probably aware, China has been very active in extending the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) to these regions. However, while various countries welcome this engagement, it also raises questions about China’s motives and how it impacts local politics.
In the beginning of 2018, the People’s Republic of China formally invited countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to join its Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Created in 2013, the BRI has mainly be seen as an endeavor to secure steady supplies of raw materials, principally from Africa and the Middle East, and to tie the economic fates of its Asian neighbors to that of China.
The big question: why would China want to include the Caribbean and South Pacific in the BRI? As neither region is highly promising in terms of critical raw materials, speculation about Chinese engagement has focused on geopolitical motives.
HCSS’ latest report, ‘The Belt and Road Initiative Looks East,’ aims to understand the consequences of China’s dealings with the nations in the Caribbean and the South Pacific, and offers recommendations to the Netherlands and its strategic partners on how to respond to these developments.
In both regions, the Chinese engage in large-scale infrastructure projects, including building highways, hospitals and schools but also government buildings and presidential palaces.
As is the case with BRI and related projects elsewhere, China’s economic inroads also have geopolitical consequences, and affects good governance at the local level. In the Caribbean, Beijing benefits from the strategic neglect on the part of the United States, which traditionally considered the Caribbean as its own backyard.
In the South Pacific, China has shown actual interest in establishing permanent military bases, while countries in the region could face pressure to facilitate this because of their sizeable external debt to China.
The most important policy recommendations for the Netherlands and its partners include advice on how to help the islands’ societies to become more resilient to Chinese influence, economically, socially, and politically.
This can be done by offering alternatives for Chinese loans and investments, including through supporting existing regional organizations; supporting good governance in the region through civil society; empowering local media outlets; teaming up with like minded countries who have interests in the region; and, when opportune, to reach out to China in seeking to make it a responsible security partner both in the Caribbean and in the South Pacific.
China in the Caribbean
China has not officially integrated the area into the Belt and Road Initiative (except for Trinidad and Tobago). Bilateral arrangements are preferred in most of its engagements in the region, due to the fact that CARICOM, the region’s leading interstate arrangement, also includes countries that recognize Taiwan.
China’s role in the region is operationalized by focusing on trade (still relatively modest), investing in and carrying out infrastructure projects, the provision of cheap and opaque loans to governments or private companies, and the purchase of fossil fuels or other rawmaterials, albeit on a small scale.
It can be said that in various ways, China is the ‘only game in town’ in the Caribbean these days. It has quickly established itself as an important power in the Caribbean region with great levels of visibility. Its increasing engagement with the Caribbean is often framed as a ‘stepping into a void’, left by world powers like the USA and the EU.
However, rather than imposing itself on small Caribbean nations, China is being actively courted by these nations, mostly because of its competitive offerings and because of a lack of interest from Western countries. At the same time, there are no evident signs that an inability of servicing Chinese loans is used for gaining political leverage, neither that more engagement with Chinese partners has led to higher levels of corruption.
However, the inflow of Chinese workers, poor quality of work and lack of local profit does cause resentment in Caribbean Countries, inducing a rise in xenophobia.
In the military realm, China shows moderate though increasing activity in the Caribbean. This includes the donation of inexpensive supply of military equipment and training for officers from the region in China. So far, no permanent military bases have been established in the region. The United States thus remains still by far the biggest and most active military actor in the region, mainly because of “the war on drugs.”
Overall conclusions regarding the Caribbean are:
• As China deepens its engagement with the region, Caribbean countries maybecome more dependent on Beijing, a development which is further amplified by the fact that many countries in the region suffer from chronic indebtedness and have poor governance environments.
• However, Chinese predominance is not a foregone conclusion in that civil society in various countries in the region is likely to continue to push back and hold elites accountable.
• At the same time, an increasing Chinese presence in terms of imported workers could exacerbate social tensions and perhaps violence.
• China’s military and navy in particular appear to be careful not to become too visibly present in the Caribbean. First, it could lead to a response from the United States. Second, local military leaderships are not yet ‘sold’ on the idea of engaging with the Chinese armed forces. Their loyalty to Beijing is far from guaranteed.
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