By David Jessop
A decade or more ago it would have been hard to find much that was tangible to write about China and the Caribbean. Today it is difficult to know where to begin, so pervasive and economically vital has its role become in the region.
From an approach originally driven by Beijing’s one China policy and the need to identify new sources of raw materials, China’s interest in the region has turned into something much broader and seemingly more strategic.
So much so, that it is gradually rebalancing the region’s relationship with North America and Europe, in a way, Caribbean Ministers suggest, that is more in tune politically with Caribbean thinking about the world. That is to say, they reflect on the relative neglect of traditional partners and their participation in for instance in the Iraq war and see, in contrast, China as a nation with a world view that is much closer to their own and without a negative colonial history in the Americas.
One consequence is that the relationship with the majority of Governments across the region has passed far beyond the construction of, for instance, national sports facilities, to one that now encompasses trade, investment in infrastructure, offshore finance and even a growing involvement in the retail sector. It involves the Chinese state at the highest level and the active participation of Chinese entities that range from its largest companies to its military.
China is now involved in almost Caribbean every nation from Suriname to the Bahamas, in projects for which billions of dollars are being made available in soft loans or in some cases grants and involve thousands of Chinese workers.
In Suriname, for instance, a memorandum of understanding has been signed recently with two Chinese companies for US$600m of projects to build a new deep sea harbour, a highway and railway from Paramaribo to Brazil, an east-west sea wall from Albina to Nickerie, a new highway to the airport and 8000 low cost houses.
The projects, which show every sign of going ahead, appear to undercut Guyana’s plans to construct a similar port and road that aims to link Brazil’s northern province of Roarima to the coast. Despite this, according to the Chinese Ambassador in Guyana, Chinese companies are preparing to invest some US$1 billion in projects there with significant investments likely in the field of mining and forestry. An arrangement has also reportedly been put in place for US$1.5 billion in grant aid for ‘the social and economic development of the country’ under a recently signed economic and technical co-operation agreement. Reports suggest that China has also signed a deal to finance a hydro electricity project and is involved in a training programme with the Guyana Defence Force that will, in part, enhance the nation’s maritime surveillance arrangements.
In Jamaica too the relationship is deepening following a visit to Beijing by Jamaica’s Prime Minister and other Ministers. China is already heavily involved in road construction and the rebuilding of critical pieces of infrastructure, is close to completing a national convention centre and may be interested in taking over the port in Kingston, restoring the island’s railway and extending the airport runway. It is also investing in agriculture, initially in the sugar sector and is, under other agreements, providing the Jamaica Defence Force with US$3.5m in military equipment.
In the Bahamas, Hong Kong based Hutchison Wamphoa own and operate the US$1 billion Freeport Container port. China is soon to construct at a cost of US$2.6 billion a 2,250 room hotel complex, Baha Mar, involving initially some 8000 Chinese workers.
More generally, China is increasing its oil exploration, refining and storage capacity in the region. China’s National Petroleum Corporation recently signed a US$6 billion agreement with Cuba. This involves Chinese engineering and construction companies and Venezuelan-guaranteed loans to build in Cienfuegos a new heavy oil refinery and associated industries such as liquefied natural gas and petrochemical plants. It has recently leased a large petroleum storage facility on St Eustatius and media reports suggests that it may also be looking at the possibility of a further refinery purchase in Aruba.
The China relationship is also expanding into the overseas territories of the Caribbean. The British Virgin Islands has long been a centre for the offshore registration of many of China’s companies but there now appears to be an interest in directly participating in infrastructure projects. In the Cayman Islands, for example, a memorandum of understanding may be signed soon for a cruise pier major road works and improvements to airports
High level visits continue largely unremarked, with China’s highest ranking female politician, Madame Liu Yandong, recently visiting Antigua accompanied by six ministers and vice ministers where a concessional loan was agreed to construct a US$45m airport terminal.
Chinese construction companies are establishing a presence in the region to bid for contracts and at another level there appear to be a significant influx of Chinese traders who in some Caribbean nations are taking over small stores and larger retail outlets. Trade too is growing especially with some of the regions larger nations. China has also established a Confucius Institute at the University of the West Indies (UWI).
Recently the view has begun to emerge that China offers a new form of thinking and an alternative economic model free of the market excesses resulting from the Washington consensus.
Space does not permit me to go into detail about this, but earlier this year, Le Kequiang, China’s Vice Premier, suggested in a newspaper article in the London Financial Times and in reference to the Chinese development model, that ‘The Book of Songs’, a two thousand year old collection of Chinese poems, provides a guide to a development model applicable to China and the wider world.
He quoted the line: ‘Give relief to people who have toiled much, so they may enjoy a life of Xiaokang. Promote it (Xiaokang) throughout the Central Kingdom and peace will be secured for all the four quarters.’
What it means, he wrote, is, when people work too hard, they should be given relief so that they may lead a comfortable life. Xiaokang, he noted, is used today to refer to a society where people can receive education, get paid through work, have access to medical services and old-age support, have a shelter and more than enough food and clothing and lead a well-off life. A Xiaokang society, he wrote, is in all respects China’s development goal by 2020. It benefits the people of China and the world and can provide moderate prosperity and development.
These are ideas that seem to offer an alternative market related development model. As relations with China deepen they deserve exploration within a Caribbean context.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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