For the Caribbean, relations with the US and China is not one of the other

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By Sir Ronald Sanders

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the US and the OAS.  He is also Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto.   The views expressed are his own) 

On October 12, more than a dozen representatives in the US Congress sent a letter to the US Trade Representative, Katherine Tai, asking for immediate attention to what they describe as “the growing influence of the Chinese Community Party in both Latin America and the Caribbean trade and economic development”.

The US Congresspersons have come to this realization years after Caribbean representatives in Washington – me included – have been saying to successive US Governments and Congress that the US has been absent as a meaningful contributor to the Caribbean development for almost two decades.

The vacuum that  the US left has been filled by the Peoples Republic of China, and it would be unreasonable for the US government or Congress to expect Caribbean countries to defer or delay their urgent development needs, waiting for the US to refocus its attention on the region.

Further, the terms of China’s loans to many Caribbean nations have been far more concessionary even than World Bank and IMF loans to lower and lower middle-income countries, and China does not use per capita income as a criterion for disqualifying high income but vulnerable and underdeveloped Caribbean countries, from eligibility for loans and grants.

US Congress persons and US government policy makers should take these realities into account when they say, as they did to the US Trade Representative, “Economic prosperity and solidified trading relationships is slowing becoming a matter of national security.”

Caribbean countries do not regard the loans and other economic arrangements they have with China as a threat to US nationals security, and no member state of CARICOM has put any policies or programmes in place that affect US national security.  Indeed, CARICOM countries have remained faithful to importing goods and services from the US, even though US assistance and investment in the sub-region has steadily declined.

Here are a few facts of which the 13 US Congress persons, who signed the 12 October letter, appear to be unaware.  First, with the exception of Haiti (which for the US is a special case), the 14-nation independent states of the Caribbean Community have been at the bottom of US official development assistance for decades.  In 2019, for instance, total US foreign assistance globally was US$47 billion, of which all CARICOM countries received US$338 million or 0.7%.  For emphasis, that is less than 1% of the global total.  Haiti alone received  US$268 million of that US$338 million delivered to all 14 CARICOM states, leaving the other 13 to share US$70 million only.  For 9 of the 13 countries, the sum provided did not amount to US$1 million.

On trade, the US remained the dominant trading partner of CARICOM states, enjoying a trade surplus of US$6.5 billion.   So, while it is factual that trade between Caribbean countries and China has increased in recent years, no trade in goods with the US was displaced, and certainly no trade in services.  And, on foreign assistance to the region, if China is now delivering more to the Caribbean than the US, it should hardly be a matter of complaint by the US.

Among the references made about China is that its representatives use sharp practices in negotiating contracts with Caribbean countries which could lead to seizure of vital infrastructure should defaults occur on repayment of loans.  These references suggest that representatives of Caribbean countries lack the skill to negotiate contracts that are in their interest – an assertion most CARICOM governments would reject.   It also suggests that CARICOM countries have not encountered similar practices from other countries that have led to uneven contracts – the Economic Partnership Agreement between the European Union collectively and each CARICOM country individually being a case in point.

What US policy makers should regard as undeniable is that China is giving more scholarships to Caribbean students to upgrade their knowledge and capacity than the US.  In fact, the US poaches Caribbean doctors, nurses and teachers – trained at great expense by Caribbean taxpayers.  In the end, if the US continues this practice, they will have only themselves to blame if the Caribbean professionals and influencers of the future know China better than the US.

To be sure, the 13 Congress persons who wrote to the USTR were more concerned about China’s relationship with the bigger countries of Latin American than they were about the Caribbean.  The Caribbean is usually a forgotten appendage to Latin America among most US policy influencers, including its think-tanks.  It is that concern about loss of trade benefits and influence over Latin American markets that caused them to say, “We believe that it is of the highest priority for the US to keep its relationships strong with our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. Before long, China will be significantly positioned to completely dominate Western Hemisphere economics, as China is already the top trading partner for practically all of Asia, Oceania, Eastern Europe, Africa and, as stated, most of South America.”

If China comes to dominate Western Hemispheric economics, it will be because of a long period of US neglect and the slow process to recognising that the US must re-engage Latin America and the Caribbean in genuine cooperation and not with one-sided strategies that are long on words, but short on allocation and delivery of funds.

In any event, Latin American and Caribbean countries, concerned about improving their economies and advancing the social and economic conditions of their peoples, do not subscribe to a rivalry between China and the US in their region and hemisphere.   They would all declare that there is ample room for economic and other forms of mutually beneficial cooperation with both China and the US.

Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com 

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6 COMMENTS

  1. having partners is in our best interest….in the case of Antigua though, the ports are good investments… how much loans we need on revenues that are a little over a billion? maybe we need to explore for oil/gas… increase the population… the country is stagnant… we see that in the EC dollar after 45 years…. no movement.

    it appears we a maintaining a system which should be designed to see to the people’s prosperity and well being. However, the US trickle down effect has force the region to look elsewhere, as it was a point discussed and well taken.

  2. Trumpite and Trumpist ideology is dangerous stuff. As a non-aligned, social-democratic/labour state, we must continue our policy of friendship with all, enemies of none. Long Live the Vision of our Fathers and Mothers, deeply rooted in Black Democratic Socialism. Forward Ever! Both of our parties (Red and Blue) are center-left progressive parties, and let’s keep it like that. (Admittedly the Red party may be a little more to the “left”, but thank God neither are centre-right or Trumpite in orientation.)

    • when I hear center this and center that, it reminds me of a scenario of going through either a flood on the left, rock in the middle or the fire on the right. Going through the rock (middle) denies one choice of movement and relief.

  3. I’ve been involved with Antigua for many years. Starting in the 90s professionally and in more recent years as a tourist. Sadly because of Covid 2021 was the first year my wife and I didn’t visit the island in a long time.

    I’ve also been fortunate in my working life to travel worldwide and I’ve seen the increasing role China is playing internationally and been at the sharp end of it in other countries.

    If you think Chinese State Aid and support is in any way benevolent or altruistic you’re either very stupid or very naive. China is quietly building its influence in the world and slowly filling up its little black book with nations that are beholden to it. Do you think it’s doing this out of the goodness of its heart? One day you’ll be asked for a favour and it’ll be made abundently clear refusal isn’t an option.
    Antigua should be one of the wealthiest countries in the Caribbean. You have the much lauded multi-million dollar yachting industry.

    Where’s the money?

    You have a busy cruise schedule every year with hoardes of wealthy passengers more than happy to spend their dollars.

    Where’s the money?

    You have some of the best hotels and resorts in the world and a year’s supply of spectacular beaches for the guests to lose themselves on.

    Where’s the money?

    You have a growing real estate sector with ambitious developments being announced regularly.

    Where’s the money?

    You have Citizenship by Investment.

    Where’s the money?

    What we actually see …

    The roads are embarrassing. Infrastructure is falling apart. Water supplies are sketchy. Schools are teaching amid challenging conditions. People aren’t getting their pensions. Nurses aren’t getting paid. LIAT is laughable and it’s staff are being trodden over. And so on …

    Where’s all the revenue and taxes from the business sectors I mentioned above? Either the revenue department isn’t very good or that money isn’t going where it should be going.

    Take a long hard look at yourself Antigua because the world is looking and it isn’t very impressed.

    You’re all very good at lauding yourselves with Sir this and His Excellency that but ultimately you’re just ordinary men and women like the rest of us and the titles don’t make you any better at your job.

    And finally. A litter of kittens could have managed Covid better.

  4. David R, I totally agree with you. This man talk about lack of skills to negotiate contracts. What happened to the gambling/gaming contract that he negotiated. As Ambassador to Antigua and Barbuda, what is his contribution? I am dumbfounded that this man believes that China is helping us. If Antiguans are not very careful we will become slaves in our own country. I watched a video on the Yida project where the Chinese would not allow government officials to step foot on our own soil. Ron must be out of his mind or just plain stupid to write this commentary. If Antiguans only knew. Time will tell.

    • I’m not an naturalised Antiguan, I wish I was but sadly not. That said I’ve spent years in Antigua and I love the place to bits. It physically hurts me what’s happening to the country and the people. The incompetence of those in power is staggering. Being a politician is an easy job – blame everyone else and kick the can down the road and leave the problem for the next politician.

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