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China spending billions in Caribbean to woo typically American partners

Chinese flag, Beijing, China. (Daderot, Wikimedia Commons/Released)
November 10, 2020

China has been expanding its ties with a number of countries in the Caribbean, increasing its influence right at America’s doorstep.

The New York Times reported China has increasingly provided loans to countries in the Caribbean as part of its Belt and Road economic initiative, has donated security equipment to military and police forces in the region and, with the recent coronavirus pandemic, sent large shipments of medical equipment to assist countries in their COVID-19 pandemic response. Chinese efforts appear aimed at winning favor with a number of nations that the U.S. has had ties within the region.

The Chinese expansion in the Caribbean has reportedly raised security concerns in the U.S. because of the region’s proximity to the U.S. could heighten its security value in a potential military conflict. R. Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, told the New York Times that “China understands intuitively the strategic importance of that space.”

Richard L. Bernal, a professor at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and former Jamaican ambassador to the United States, raised another Chinese motive for its expansion in the Caribbean. China contends that Taiwan is part of its territory, and many of the remaining countries that recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty are in the Caribbean and Latin America. Bernal told the New York Times, “China’s objective is to gradually eliminate the recognition of Taiwan.”

Citing the Inter-American Dialogue, the New York Times reported the Chinese government has spent more than $6 billion over 15 years to fund infrastructure projects throughout the Caribbean.

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Jamaica is one particular hub of Chinese interests in the Caribbean. Over the past 15 years, the Chinese government has reportedly lent Jamaica around $2.1 billion for infrastructure spending. Chinese firms have also reportedly spent more than $3 billion in projects in Jamaica for bauxite mining and sugar production.

The U.S. has been working to counteract China’s influence in the Caribbean.

In October, the U.S. ambassador to Jamaica, Donald Tapia raised concerns about the Chinese telecoms company Huawei, amid its efforts to expand into the Jamaican market.

Tapia, tweeted, “Do you know the truth about #Huawei? Myth: Huawei protects your interests and information. Reality: Huawei has a history of spying, stealing, and supporting authoritarian regimes. Read more about my thoughts on #5G and Huawei here.”

In an interview last November with the Jamaica Gleaner, Tapia also called China a “dragon with two heads” and raised concerns about a land-swap Jamaica made with China in exchange for funding for infrastructure spending in Jamaica.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a January visit to Jamaica, also warned about the potential for predatory lending by China. Pompeo said it can be “tempting to accept easy money from places like China” but said, “what good is it if it feeds corruption and undermines your rule of law?”

Concerns about predatory lending by China are not unfounded, according to the New York Times. In 2018, Sri Lanka, another country that has accepted loans from China, found itself unable to pay down its loans and as a result, signed away a major seaport to Chinese control.

In 2019, CBC reported the Chinese construction of Jamaica’s North South Highway left the country with a $730-million debt to China and a one-way trip on the 66 kilometer (41 mile) road includes a $32 toll, collected by the Chinese developer; a toll reportedly not affordable to most Jamaican commuters.

Last November, the Jamaican government announced it would no longer negotiate new loans from China. Jamaica reported Chinese loans amount to about four percent of its loan profile and debts from China are scheduled to be repaid within a decade.

Still, China has continued efforts to expand its influence in the region, notably during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. In July, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi pledged China would extend about $1 billion in loans to Latin American and Caribbean countries for vaccines.

President Donald Trump’s administration, in a further effort to counteract China’s moves in the Caribbean, has promoted U.S. development programs in the region. In October, a Trump administration delegation visited Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic to tout American private sector investment.

Pepe Zhang, an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said the Chinese and U.S. efforts in the Caribbean may be putting those countries in an uncomfortable position.

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