Photo Credit: China-Embassy.org
Too often, United States government officials and scholars have characterized China’s relationship with Caribbean nations as a one-way affair in which the former, as a malign foreign actor, takes advantage of the latter, a small and weak group of states. The problem with such a characterization—which does not account for Caribbean states’ interest and too readily assumes that small states cannot resist Chinese influence—is that U.S. policy and rhetoric toward countering Chinese expansion in the region can become narrow and misinformed. When policies are constructed based on this outlook, outlined objectives are unlikely to be met since the United States and Chinese interests are accounted for, but not those of Caribbean states. Therefore, a re-examination of Caribbean-Chinese dynamics from the perspective of Caribbean states’ interests can better afford U.S. policymakers a more informed understanding of this relationship.
The current U.S. approach to China’s interest in the Caribbean has relied too heavily on a Cold War mentality in which Caribbean nations are viewed either as part of the United States’ backyard or proxies of China. This has led to the unfortunate habit of U.S. officials lecturing and threatening Caribbean leaders and their governments about the consequences of engaging with China.
For example, U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, Donald Tapia, has stated that if Jamaica utilizes Chinese-developed 5G technology, the United States may be unwilling to aid the Caribbean country in times of natural disasters due to fears that the 5G network could give China an “opportunity to download all the data that we [the United States] have.” Again, when referencing a scenario in which the United States goes to war with China, Tapia posed the question: “would you [Jamaica, rather] be under the umbrella with China or under the umbrella with the United States?”
In other instances, policymakers have simply disregarded Caribbean states’ ability to make their own choices, as can be seen in the unsubstantiated claim that China was behind Barbados’ decision to remove Queen Elizabeth II as the country’s Head of State. Such claims by the U.S. are likely to be read by Caribbean governments and their people, who feel that their autonomy is being questioned, with disdain. While this specific incident occurred in the United Kingdom, it has been used by U.S. officials and scholars to illustrate Chinese influence in the Caribbean.
These instances are problematic because even when the United States attempts to be competitive in the Caribbean—such as having states in the region sign onto The Growth in the Americas initiative—its aggressive rhetoric toward China undermines the overall initiative.
It is understandable that the United States perceives China as a threat to its interests and influence in the Caribbean, but it is important to note that states in the region, although small and lacking in comparable military and economic resources, are not easily managed or influenced. It should not be assumed that Caribbean leaders are unaware of the risks associated with Chinese investment and loans. Caribbean leaders, their governments, and their people are entirely capable of assessing their relations with other states. No amount of lecturing and warnings will dissuade Caribbean leaders from engaging with China because their relations with the country are largely based on national interest as well as pragmatic economic and cooperative considerations. Contrary to U.S. rhetoric, there is no evidence that China-Caribbean relations are based on matched ideologies or negotiated purely to further China’s political agenda.
This is why it is important to underscore that, for the Caribbean states that recognize China, their engagement is not one-sided, but rather a two-way, mutual relationship. The small size of Caribbean states limits their ability to garner the requisite economic and political power that would allow them to fully protect and provide for their populations on their own. In addition to an overall need to secure public goods for their citizens, the leaders of these states recognize that in the face of existential crises, such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, friendly relations with richer states can provide solutions to potential challenges. As a result, the principle that guides Caribbean states’ engagement with China is best described by Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, who asserted that “the Caribbean is about pragmatism,” and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) members are “friends of all, enemies of none.”
Guyana’s President, Dr. Irfaan Ali’s engagement with China and the China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) is a recent example of this pragmatism. There is no question that China remains and will continue to be a valued partner to Guyana—the country is a signatory to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and has a diplomatic relationship that dates back to the 1970s. However, while Guyana enjoys close relations with China, it has not stopped President Ali from putting Guyanese interests at the forefront of the relationship.
Mr. Ali strongly demanded answers after CHEC—which is contracted to renovate and expand Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan International Airport—was accused of misusing equipment and delaying the completion of the airport. This demand was made in the presence of the Chinese Ambassador, and Mr. Ali furthered his response by rebuking CHEC’s request for additional funding to complete the project. Not only did he specify that CHEC must complete all projects outlined in the initial contract signed in 2011, but he also signed a new agreement directing responsibility to CHEC for the additional USD $9 million required to complete the expansion, as well as “rectify and complete all outstanding remedial works.” President Ali’s assertiveness with CHEC is a testament to the persistence of Caribbean pragmatism, and is a demonstration that the region’s leaders are capable of countering risks associated with Chinese companies.
Therefore, instead of attempting to counter Chinese influence in the region, U.S. officials and policymakers should focus on providing suitable alternatives to Caribbean states, shifting to a more cooperative approach in the region. For instance, as China announced a USD $1 billion loan to Latin America and the Caribbean for COVID-19 vaccine access, it would be in the United States’ best interest to also make a sizable commitment to the region as vaccines become available.
In addition to competing with China, U.S. officials should reconsider the irony of their condescending rhetoric regarding China’s influence over the small states of the Caribbean. The United States needs to start viewing the Caribbean nations as partners, rather than as a neighbor over whom they have control. The only way the United States can be effective in competing with Chinese expansion in the region is if the U.S. truly accounts for Caribbean perspectives and interests and provides suitable alternatives to support Caribbean security and development.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American graduate student at American University’s School of International Service. Mowla holds an MA in History from Florida International University and currently interns for the Embassies of Guyana and Antigua and Barbuda.