China’s highly anticipated Second Belt & Road International Cooperation Forum (BRF) wrapped up on April 27. Initially not including Caribbean nations, the country’s signature policy has gained increasing momentum in the region since 2017.
So far, several Caribbean countries, such as Barbados, Jamaica, Dominica and Grenada, etc, have signed up to the initiative, which provides a useful context for offering some reflections on the place of China in the future development of the independent states of the English-speaking Caribbean.
Significantly, this is taking place at a time when the US administration has been trying to lecture leaders in the region on the perils of cooperating with China, a recent example of which is that US President Donald Trump invited a select group of Caribbean leaders on March 22, to discuss, among other issues, “the growing influence of China in the region”.
Although the news reports later indicated that China was not as central to the discussions as was the situation in Venezuela, it did not escape notice that the US was openly expressing its hostility to China’s presence in the Caribbean, nor did it escape notice that the US had unashamedly given itself the right to invite sovereign Caribbean leaders to Mar-a-Lago to warn them of China’s presence in the region as if this were a matter-of-fact problem.
Despite the efforts of the US to extend its hegemony over the Caribbean long after it has lost the ability to be truly hegemonic, there is little doubt that the Caribbean needs a global partner like China for its continued post-colonial development.
Since the early 1990s, the Caribbean states have faced a number of global adjustments which have challenged their chosen path of development.
First, it was the liberalisation of world trade which terminated the protected trade regimes in primary commodities (sugar and bananas) which had shielded them from global competition immediately after independence.
This was followed by the 2008 global financial crisis, which saw reductions in investment in their tourism, construction, and financial services.
Now presently, the Caribbean countries are facing a new challenge to their offshore financial services, from the EU, and the OECD, who have occasionally “blacklisted” various states for “harmful tax practices”.
In short, the prospects of the Caribbean under its continued relationship with the North Atlantic powers have remained bleak. With few exceptions, rising debt, the drying up of sources of finance for development, the inability to invest in physical and social development, summarises the experience of the Caribbean since 1990.
It is these realities which underscore the importance of China to the Caribbean. For the first time since the 1950s, qualitatively different world order is emerging which can provide a space for Caribbean countries to pursue new options for development.
The US has historically treated the Caribbean only in terms of its own security interests, and this tendency has been reinforced by the Trump presidency guided by officials like John Bolton.
The Belt and Road Initiative, with its promise for multi-layered prospects for partnership, therefore offers a new and exciting path to Caribbean development.
To achieve this, however, the Caribbean states will need to refashion their foreign policy approaches away from their historical colonial belief that “we are with the West.”
Secondly, they need to agree on a common approach for cooperating with China, which can lead to holistic regional development in areas like transport and communications infrastructure.
They also need to unify their foreign policy stances in line with the One China policy.
Finally, China should develop a more concerted development relationship with Caricom. This may be done through the holding of an annual China-Caricom summit which can systematically set priorities and map present and future areas of cooperation.