By David Jessop
Trying to understand what China wants of the Caribbean has become a subject of conversation from one end of the region to the other. Whether over dinner, in boardroom meetings or among academics, there is a real interest in what China can bring, or is seeking from the region
The question is an important one as there is little antipathy towards China, but a desire to understand better where the relationship that most governments are now pursuing might lead.
For the most part, such conversations refer to the absence of information; fear of competition as Chinese companies become resident in the region and bid for contracts; occasional breakdowns in cultural understanding at a working level; and small business concerns about the impact that the increased Chinese presence in the region is having: all issues that need to be addressed.
Unfortunately, outside of Government circles, what is said beyond this tends to be based on the concerns expressed in the decade-late discovery by the US media that China has been deepening its ties with the region. As a consequence, much private comment shows little understanding of the breadth, depth and complexity of the relationship that Beijing and its enterprises have already established across the Caribbean and Latin America, or awareness of the ways in which China’s objectives are mutual, maturing and moving on.
China’s thinking about the Caribbean first emerged formally in early 2005 at the first China-Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum. There it clarified an interest in the region that had been growing since 1999 when trade flows and contact began to accelerate.
From an approach originally driven by Beijing’s one China policy, the need to identify new sources of raw materials, and a desire for a deeper relationship with Cuba, China’s interest in the region has turned into something strategic and could now, if Caribbean and Latin American government’s concur, become more deep-rooted and profound.
In late June, China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, made a remarkable speech*. Delivered in Santiago, Chile, to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, he suggested that China wanted to establish what amounts to a special relationship with the Caribbean and Latin America.
His remarks proceeded from the recognition that like China, the people of the Americas have an ancient culture and history. Over time, he observed, because of their open, inclusive and innovative nature, that both civilizations have survived and thrived. Noting that today Latin America and the Caribbean as a region is a major emerging power and was one of the engines driving global economic recovery, he suggested that a basis existed for a much deeper relationship.
Referring to multi-dimensional growth, the deepening of political trust and the substantive progress in development co-operation and trade since China’s published its 2008 policy paper on Latin America and the Caribbean, Mr Wen proposed that the relationship should go further.
“Under the complex international situation, both our common interests and mutual needs are growing”.... “mutual reliance between us serves the fundamental interests of our people and balanced development, prosperity and stability of the world”. “China is ready to advance its comprehensive and co-operative partnership with Latin America and the Caribbean .... and raise our practical co-operation to a new level”, he said.
He put forward four detailed proposals.
Firstly he suggested that the time had come to “deepen strategic co-operation on the basis of mutual political trust”. In practical terms for China this means increasing the number of high-level contacts, establishing government to government consultation mechanisms, greater dialogue between legislatures, political parties and local governments, and the launching of a bilateral cooperation forum. Mr Wen also made clear China would like rapidly to set up a regular foreign ministers' dialogue mechanism with the CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which excludes the US, Canada and non-independent nations in the region) and to explore a China-CELAC meeting at the level of Heads of Government.
Secondly, he said that China wanted to expand its economic cooperation and trade. In a proposal with important geo-strategic implications for the Hemisphere and the wider world he suggested that both sides might work together internationally as developing countries, opening markets to each other, and making efforts in the next five years to significantly increase bilateral trade.
In this latter context he indicated that China wanted to buy more manufactured goods and high value-added products to achieve balanced and sustainable trade. He spoke too about enhancing funds for investment; a special loan fund of US$10 billion to facilitate infrastructure development; and encouraging ‘competitive and reputable’ Chinese companies to invest.
Thirdly, Mr Wen also spoke about the challenge of food security, an issue that will become more pressing as the full impact of the drought in the US on world prices become apparent. He suggested a number of measures. China, he said, will propose a joint agricultural ministers' forum in 2013; will make available an emergency food reserve; will set up a special fund for agricultural cooperation; and adopt other measures aimed at supporting increased food production.
Finally, he made clear that China wants to enhance people-to-people relations through cultural exchanges to as he put it “pass on our friendship from generation to generation”. Practically this will mean cooperation in education, culture, media, sports, tourism, airlift and in other fields.
Mr Wen spoke throughout about Latin America and the Caribbean as a single strategic entity, making clear that China wishes to significantly deepen its association.
What is being proposed implies ties that go far beyond present levels of investment, trade and development assistance. It suggests the need for deeper public engagement with the ways in which Governments intend re- balancing traditional and newer relationships as political, economic and development ties with China grow. It may also require consideration of the extent to which China’s closer involvement with nations in seas near to the US might affect the thinking of future US Administrations; resolution of Cariforum and Caricom’s divided relationship between China and Taiwan; determination of the balance between economic necessity and philosophy in a deeper relationship; and a focus on the social, economic and cultural effect of a more fundamental relationship.
There can be little doubt that China has an important future role in the Caribbean and shares much of the regions thinking. A further column will consider in more detail the implications of these issues.
For now, however, the remarks of China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, provide some clarity as to what it is that China hopes for in a deeper relationship with the Caribbean and with Latin America.
*Wen Jiabao’s remarks ‘Trusted Friends Forever’ can be read in full at http://english.gov.cn/2012-06/27/content_2171455.htm
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org