China expands reach in Caribbean, destabilizing US

MEXICO – China offered Jamaica loans and expertise to build miles of new highways. Across the Caribbean, it donated security equipment to military and police forces, and built a network of Chinese cultural centers. And it has shipped large shipments of test kits, masks and ventilators to help governments respond to the pandemic.

These initiatives are part of a quiet but assertive push by China in recent years to expand its footprint and influence in the region through government grants and loans, investment from Chinese companies, and diplomatic efforts, cultural and security.

But while governments in the region have greeted Beijing’s interest, the Trump administration has viewed China’s growing presence – and its potential to challenge Washington’s influence in the region – with concern and suspicion.

Caribbean markets are generally small, and most of the countries that live there lack significant reserves of minerals and other raw materials that often attract the attention of the Chinese. But the region is strategically important as a hub for logistics, banking and commerce, according to an analyst, and could have great security value in a military conflict due to its proximity to the United States.

“There are a lot of reasons that go beyond balance sheets,” said R. Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American studies at the Institute for Strategic Studies at the US Army War College. “China intuitively understands the strategic importance of this space.”

China’s efforts in the region are part of its global strategy to forge deep economic ties and strong diplomatic ties around the world, in part through the construction of major infrastructure projects as part of its ambitious initiative. ” the Belt and the Road “.

A crucial motivation for China’s Caribbean strategy is also to win over other countries that officially recognize Taiwan instead of China, most of which are in the Caribbean and Latin America, said Richard L. Bernal, professor at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. and former Jamaican Ambassador to the United States.

China views Taiwan as part of its territory and has long sought to reduce the number of countries that recognize it. But recently, Taiwan’s international stature has grown with its aggressive response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“China’s goal is to phase out recognition of Taiwan,” Bernal said.

China’s growing interest has come as much needed aid to Caribbean countries with serious infrastructure needs but whose middle-income status makes it difficult for them to access development finance.

According to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization, low-interest Chinese government loans totaling more than $ 6 billion over 15 years have funded major infrastructure projects and other initiatives. In the Caribbean. The total climbs to $ 62 billion with the addition of aid to Venezuela, much of it given in exchange for long-term oil supplies.

During the same period, Chinese companies have invested in ports and maritime logistics, mining and oil companies, sugar and timber industries, tourist resorts and technology projects. Between 2002 and 2019, trade between China and the Caribbean increased eightfold, said Ellis, a professor at the US Army War College.

China’s global push for business and its allies has drawn criticism, especially in the United States and Western Europe, who have called the Belt and Road initiative predatory. In 2018, Sri Lanka, unable to repay Chinese loans, ceded its main port to China.

But analysts who closely follow Chinese activity in the Caribbean say that while there is some concern about the sustainability of some of the debt assumed by regional governments, they have seen no evidence of a debt trap as in the case of the Sri Lankan port.

“Loans are not only economic affairs, but also a means of creating goodwill,” said Bernal, professor at the University of the West Indies.

Jamaica, which has become a focal point for Chinese activity in the Caribbean, has received more loans from the Chinese government than any other Caribbean island country, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, which closely monitors Chinese government funding. In the region.

Over the past 15 years, Beijing has loaned Jamaica some $ 2.1 billion for the construction of roads, bridges, a convention center and housing, according to the group. Grants funded a children’s hospital, schools and an office building for the Department of Foreign Affairs, among other projects, according to the Planning Institute of Jamaica.

And direct investment by Chinese companies in Jamaica has invested more than $ 3 billion in projects such as bauxite mining and sugar production, Chinese business leaders said, according to local news reports.

Last November, the Jamaican government announced that it would stop negotiating new loans with China as part of its efforts to quickly reduce debt, but would continue to cooperate with the Chinese on major infrastructure projects through joint ventures and public-private partnerships, among other agreements. .

But Jamaican officials say the outstanding Chinese loans are not an extraordinary burden on the country – they only represent about 4% of Jamaica’s total loan portfolio and are expected to be repaid within a decade.

China has also expanded its influence in the Caribbean through security cooperation, including donating equipment to military and police forces, and cultural awareness programs, such as expanding its network of Confucius Institutes. . These institutes provide language courses and cultural programs, but have been accused of disseminating Chinese government propaganda.

The pandemic has allowed China to further strengthen these relations by donating or selling personal protective equipment, in what has been called “mask diplomacy.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged in July that China would provide $ 1 billion in vaccine loans to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Although it has increased its presence in the region, China has avoided directly challenging the United States in the Caribbean through rhetoric or military and political initiatives, Mr. Ellis said.

Yet the rise of China in the Caribbean has prompted the Trump administration to forcefully promote its own development agendas. These include “Growth in the Americas,” an investment initiative launched last year that many analysts saw as a direct response to China’s diplomatic and trade efforts in the Caribbean and Latin America.

And in October, a delegation from the Trump administration visited Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic to extol U.S. private sector investment.

The United States has also stepped up warnings to allies in the region about the risks of doing business with Beijing, highlighting what it says are potential dangers ranging from shoddy construction to predatory loans and espionage.

In recent weeks, US Ambassador to Jamaica Donald Tapia has warned the country against installing fifth-generation mobile networks made by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, warning in a Twitter post that “Huawei has a history of espionage, theft and support for authoritarian regimes.”

Last November, Mr. Tapia, in an interview along with the Jamaica Gleaner, called China a “two-headed dragon,” the newspaper reported.

During a visit to Jamaica in January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was “tempting to accept easy money from places like China.”

“But what good is it if it fuels corruption and undermines your rule of law?” ” He asked. “What good are these investments if they are actually destroying your environment and not creating jobs for your people?

The Chinese Embassy in Kingston, in a report Responding to Pompeo’s remarks, said he had deepened his engagement with Caribbean states “on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit”. And he accused the United States of fighting.

“It seems that some American politicians cannot go anywhere without attacking China, tarnishing China’s reputation, setting fires and stoking flames and sowing discord,” the Chinese embassy said. “They can keep talking if they want to, but we’ll keep walking. The world will make it clear who is causing trouble and who is trying to make a difference. “

The intensifying competition between the two superpowers has put Caribbean countries in a difficult position, and they don’t want to be forced to choose sides, said Pepe Zhang, associate director of the Latin American Center of Adrienne Arsht of the ‘Atlantic Council.

“They want to be able to work with the United States and China in areas that make sense,” he said. “And I think that’s something that will be even more true now that the region is going through a very difficult economic recession.”

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