The effect of a strong President Xi in the Caribbean
On 24 October, at its 19th Party Congress in Beijing, China’s Communist Party formally elevated President Xi Jinping to the revered status of legendary leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The Congress wrote his name into its constitution and set him up to remain in office beyond 2022.
This gives Xi and the government he leads the political stability and clout to advance an agenda to make China a global superpower. A leading academic at the Chinese University of Hong Kong reckons that: “By the middle of this century or before, China aims to close the gap economically and militarily with the United States and become the ultimate arbiter in the Asia-Pacific region”.
But while consolidating China’s powerful place in its own region, according to experts on China’s politics, Xi is also determined to return China to its “rightful” place as the world’s dominant economic and cultural power.
Already, China has poured billions of dollars in investment in industry, agriculture, and infrastructure projects across most of the world. Xi has also built up the military, and raised China’s profile on the world stage.
So, what does all this mean for the Caribbean region? One sure thing is that China is now a real player in the area and one that intends to stay. In this regard, both Caribbean countries and those powerful nations with a vested interest in the region had all better factor China into their military, strategic, economic and political thinking.
When President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he made Latin America and the Caribbean the location for his first overseas trip. And on that visit, in June 2013, it was on Caribbean soil – in Trinidad and Tobago – that he made his first landing to meet all the Caribbean leaders. That, in itself, should have sent a strong signal to the United States and the nations of the European Union (EU) that, while they may pay marginal attention to a Caribbean over which they once held sway, China has recognised importance in not overlooking it.
Xi has made it clear that China seeks not only trade and investment opportunities but also “strategic partnerships” in the region. A 2014 report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that: “Beijing likely views the Caribbean as strategically important by virtue of its proximity to the United States and major maritime trade routes and infrastructure, such as the Panama Canal and the region’s many ports.”
Whatever strategic interest China may have in the region, the Chinese economic and financial footprint has been welcomed on Caribbean shores, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis that began in the US and spread to Europe. As private and public investment from the US and EU declined, China’s investment surged, helping to save many Caribbean countries from serious social dislocation and political disruption. In rapid time, the Caribbean area was boosted with the construction of roads, port facilities, new government buildings, and cricket and football stadia, compliments of Chinese government aid, loans, and investment.
The scale of Chinese participation in Caribbean economies was multiplied several times over in Latin American countries. Therefore, it should have been no surprise to anyone that a high-level Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) academic forum, just days before the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, underscored “the enormous opportunities” for economic, social, political and cultural co-operation between China and the LAC. Significantly, they recognised these opportunities “in the current international context marked by uncertainty, the effects of climate change and the revival of protectionist trends” – all of which looks like a swipe at the policies of the present US government.
Climate change is, of course, of special concern to Caribbean countries, especially after the recent disastrous and monstrous hurricanes that severely damaged several Caribbean countries.
The welcoming of Xi’s government participation would have been strengthened by the policy position on Latin America and the Caribbean published by China 11 months ago. In that policy, China made it clear that: “The development of China cannot be possible without the development of other developing countries, including countries in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
The policy document set out China’s agenda in a way that is music to the ears of governments in the Caribbean. For instance, in trade, China said it wants long-term and stable trade relations and various trade facilitation arrangements including a Free Trade Agreement. Importantly, it also committed to “sound and balanced development and structural diversification of trade between the two sides”.
It also pledged to institute “double taxation” agreements – something abandoned by countries in North America and the EU whose tax policies are seen as depriving the Caribbean of investment.
Lack of access to development finance from international financial institutions and Western governments is regarded as a major impediment to economic growth and development in the Caribbean. Unlike these institutions and governments, China proposes – and has made – concessional loans and other beneficial financing arrangements between China and Caribbean countries.
Realising that infrastructural development lies at the centre of the Caribbean’s ambitions for rapid development, China also committed to co-operation in construction and engineering, equipment manufacturing and operation management in the fields of transportation, trade logistics, storage facilities, information and communication technology, energy and power, water conservancy, housing and urban construction.
China also undertook – and has maintained the position – that it “will continue to provide economic and technical assistance to Latin American and Caribbean countries including poverty reduction, climate change and humanitarian assistance without attaching any political conditions and, in accordance with the needs of related countries”.
Against this background, Caribbean countries, that enjoy diplomatic relations with China, will undoubtedly welcome President Xi’s elevation by the Chinese Communist Party and what looks like a stable, longer and predictable period of his stewardship of China’s affairs.
In large part, this welcome will be bolstered by his government’s helpful posture toward Caribbean development and its assuring position that the development of China is not possible without the development of other developing countries “including the Caribbean”.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States of America and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)