On September 22, 2020, British Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat grabbed international attention with his suggestion that Barbados’s exit from the Commonwealth was driven, at least in part, by pressure from China. The accusation highlighted concern over the significant advances in China’s commercial links, and influence, in the Caribbean, a region sometimes called the United States’ “third border.”
China’s Interest in the Caribbean
The strategic significance of the Caribbean for the United States is clear. Its geographic position as a maritime gateway to the southeastern United States shares characteristics with the island chains off China’s southeast coast that China is taking steps to dominate. For China, the Caribbean is also critical; its location offers commercial access to the Atlantic coast of both the United States and South America for Chinese ships traffic transiting the Panama Canal. The Caribbean also sits between multiple U.S. military and commercial logistics hubs and potential destinations in the Americas, Africa and Europe. Indeed, during World War Two, German U-boats stalked allied convoys transiting between the Gulf of Paria, Trinidad and Tobago and Europe.
The Caribbean is also home to four of the nine governments in Latin America that diplomatically recognize Taiwan, which have retained their ties to Taipei despite China’s efforts to isolate its rival. The Caribbean is also an important voting bloc in the Organization of American States and other regional bodies. That increases its strategic value to China, which has sought to influence multilateral diplomacy in the region.
In commercial terms, the Caribbean is a diverse, middle-income market for Chinese goods, a financial center for receiving outward-bound Chinese foreign investment and a source of modest amounts of bauxite, nickel and sugar. When including Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, the region holds over eight billion barrels of recoverable oil, and multiple facilities to process it.
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