China vs. Taiwan: Battle for Influence in the Caribbean

China vs. Taiwan: Battle for Influence in the Caribbean

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China’s projection of influence in some previously unfamiliar regions of the world continues to grow, that much is clear. When it comes to Latin America and the Caribbean, Beijing has strengthened its ties, particularly by means of comprehensive trade relations, with countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela. This has been done not only to secure non-traditional trading partners and commodity sources like oil and soybeans, but also to corner established markets for its many traditional exports. China’s relationship with the Caribbean is complex, as this region is particularly important to Beijing’s foreign policy goals regarding Taiwan, which has some of its greatest supporters there.   Several Caribbean states currently recognize Taiwan as an independent republic, instead of maintaining the “one-China” position that has been endorsed by the mainland government.

Investment and Development

Unsurprisingly, China has been able to establish strong economic ties abroad, particularly in the developing world, by means of a series of investment deals. These include some major initiatives in the Caribbean in recent years.

In September 2011, Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu visited Jamaica to meet with Governor-General Patrick Allen and Prime Minister Bruce Golding. While there, Hui put forward a five-point proposal for intensifying bilateral relations. The goals outlined by both sides included: promoting high-level exchanges to deepen mutual political trust, strengthening economic and trade cooperation, improving agricultural cooperation, expanding people-to-people and cultural exchanges, and promoting coordination in international affairs.[1] Also during the visit, Hui signed two separate agreements for grants valued jointly at RMB 21 million (USD 3.2 million), as well as a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on agricultural cooperation.[2] In November 2011, the Jamaican government approved a Tax Information Exchange Agreement (TIEA) with the Chinese island of Macao. According to a high-ranking Jamaican official, Arthur Williams, the agreement will facilitate the effective exchange of tax information between Jamaican tax authorities and their counterparts in Macao.[3]

Regarding ALBA member Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, publicly praised his country’s relationship with Beijing in October 2011. Skerrit commented that “China has demonstrated to all of us its sincerity and willingness to assist us in time of need [sic] and we will thank them profusely for that kind of assistance.”[4]  This statement was in reference to Chinese investments in resettlement projects to aid the citizens of Dominica that were affected by floods on its west coast that year. Other Chinese projects on the island include the construction of the Dominica State College, the State House, and a housing program, under a USD 14 million loan agreement.

In Guyana, President Bharrat Jagdeo told the Caribbean Community back in September 2011 that the entire bloc should make efforts to deepen their relations with China. The head of state declared during the two-day China-Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum that “in the last 10 years, China’s exports have consistently accounted for more than 70 per cent of Dominica’s total trade. In 2008, 93 per cent of Caribbean-China trade consisted of Beijing’s exports to the region. The region itself exported significantly (over US$60 million in goods) to China in that year.”[5] China has exhibited a growing demand for the region’s raw materials, including gas and asphalt from Trinidad and Tobago, and timber, bauxite, and other minerals from Guyana. In December 2011, Florida International University’s Applied Research Center published a Findings Report entitled “Guyanese Strategic Culture: Leaders Leveraging Landscapes” by renowned Caribbean expert Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, which highlighted how Beijing has a great interest in Guyana’s uranium reserves (p. 9). In 2011, Georgetown and Beijing signed a framework agreement for the Amaila Falls Hydropower project.[6]

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/AP
Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/AP

During the aforementioned China-Caribbean forum last September, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan reportedly pledged up to USD 1 billion in preferential loans to support the local economic development of Caribbean countries.[7]  In addition, Vice Premier Wang also met with Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, and stated that “China encourages its businesses to invest in Trinidad and Tobago with the win-win objectives of mutual benefit,” and an inter-governmental agreement between the two governments that was signed at the end of their meeting.[8]

Another country that has benefited from Chinese investment is Antigua and Barbuda. In January 2011, the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) reported that Beijing will provide USD 45 million to build a new terminal at the C.V. Bird International Airport, which will take three years to complete. A delegation of the Chinese government was sent to the Caribbean state to sign an agreement that finalized this investment deal. Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer used the visit “to re-state his country’s ‘determination to remain a true friend of the People’s Republic of China.’”[9] One member of the Chinese delegation that visited Antigua was State Councilor Liu Yandong, who remarked that “since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Antigua and Barbuda on Jan. 1, 1983, the two countries’ cooperation [has] developed in a sustainable and stable way.”[10]  In November 2011, a 20-member delegation from China’s National People’s Congress visited the island, which again included “officials from the country’s Standing Committee and a member of the NPC’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.”[11]  The delegation met with Prime Minister Spencer and visited local sites like Nelson’s Dockyard, and signed cooperation agreements.

  • Source: Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
  • Source: Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

Finally, in a January finding by the Associated Press’ Jeff Todd, he explains how China’s state-owned Export-Import Bank has agreed to finance a new port and bridge in the Bahamas’ northern island of Abaco.[12] Chinese financial aid for both projects will consist of a USD 41 million loan, of which USD 33 million will be used for a thirty-five acre port, while the rest will be used to build the Little Abaco Bridge, which “will allow the government to remove the causeway connecting Great and Little Abaco as well as restore natural flow to the mangrove forest and other natural habitat in the area,” according to Environment Minister Earl Deveaux.

Diplomatic Support and Cooperation

Aside from developing an economic presence, China also has shown its diplomatic support, as well as sympathy, for Latin American and Caribbean initiatives, particularly those that are trying to detach regional nations from Washington’s diplomatic sphere of influence. For example, in December 2011, Chinese President Hu Jintao congratulated Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Sebastián Piñera of Chile on the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, reported that “Hu said that the establishment of CELAC represents a major milestone in regional integration and that China appreciates the positive role of Latin American and Caribbean countries in international and regional affairs.”[13]  As He Li explains in a 2005 article entitled “Rivalry between Taiwan and the PRC in Latin America” [14] Beijing also “wants to use the Third World to construct a multi-polar world based on China’s terms. Since the end of the cold war, Beijing wishes to see changes in the global balance of power, and to do so requires a network of allies from the Third World, including those from Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Beijing has also improved relations with a number of Caribbean nations outside the realm of trade and investment. In October 2011, China pledged military assistance worth USD 1.1 million to the Jamaican Defence Force (JDF). JDF Chief of Defence Staff, Major General Antony Anderson stated that the “allotment that has been apportioned, and discussions over the next few months with members of the Chinese government, and the People’s Liberation Army, will determine how best it will be spent.”[15]

As part of a series of regional diplomatic initiatives last November, Prime Minister of Guyana Samuel Hinds received the “Medal of China –Latin America Friendship.” The award was bestowed by a delegation of the Chinese Peoples’ Association for Friendship with Peoples from Foreign Countries (CPAFPFFC) that was visiting the area at the time.  Additionally, Premier Wen Jiabao had the patience to describe Barbados as a “good friend” and an “important partner” to China, which is logical since the country supports the “one China” policy. This statement took place during a visit of Barbadian Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who called Beijing a “reliable partner.”[16] These non-earth-shaking events are understandable when one is aware of the tentacles of Beijing’s “One China” policy and its search for reliable partners throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Lastly, it is important to note that China has sent security personnel to Haiti as part of its participation in the controversial United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Groups like the Haitian Action website have been critical of the contingent that has been serving in the UN mission since 2004, stating that

“They were accused of involvement along with Brazilian UN forces in a week-long siege of the community of Bel Air in June 2005. After that operation, the Haitian police had burned down more than twelve homes in the area and more than 30 people were reportedly gunned down in the panic that ensued. The Chinese were also accused by members of Aristide’s Lavalas movement of taking video and photographs during peaceful demonstrations that were later used to persecute them for their political stance.”[17]

According to MINUSTAH’s website, four Chinese nationals working for the UN police were tragically killed during the January 12, 2010, earthquake.[18]

Then again, there have been several diplomatic incidents between China and Caribbean states, particularly in Haiti. Writing for the Brown Journal of World Affairs in a 2006 article, University of Miami professor June Dreyer explained that: “in 1996, Beijing, angry because the vice president of Taiwan had been invited to Rene Preval’s presidential inauguration, threatened to use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to end a UN peacekeeping operation in Haiti.”[19]

Beijing vs. Taipei

Certainly a critical aspect regarding the extent of Chinese interests in the Caribbean, as previously has been reflected upon, is Beijing’s interest for Caribbean islands to adopt mainland China’s negative stance on Taiwan. In the past few years, China has taken an aggressive approach in attempting to dissuade Taipei’s ability to invest in this region.  Since eleven out of twenty-three of Taiwan’s surviving diplomatic relationships can be found within the Greater Caribbean,[20] it is of distinct importance for China to ensure that it maintains robust ties with Latin American and Caribbean countries for political reasons, while also managing to limit Taipei’s involvement in the region. Without including the Central American states, the Caribbean nations that currently recognize Taiwan are the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, as well as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Currently, the longstanding diplomatic competition between the two Chinas seems to be cooling down, due to incumbent Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou being re-elected.[21] It seems clear that President Ma wants to promote a peaceful path towards cross-strait relations development, and hence the subtle tug-of-war over diplomatic recognition seems, at least for the time being, to be coming to an end.

Taiwan’s Victories and Losses

The diplomatic battle described as “Money Diplomacy” being Beijing and Taipei usually encapsulates investment and lending, development aid, technical assistance, and academic cooperation. Taipei sees such initiatives as paramount and aims to maintain it via investment and economic aid initiatives, though there has been concern in the past that Santo Domingo may terminate its recognition of Taiwan. In October 2010, the Bank of China and China’s Foreign Trade Bank stated they would extend USD 462 million in financing for an exclusive tourism complex in Punta Perla in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. In response, James Chang, a spokesman for the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that “our embassy will closely monitor the situation. However, the Republic of China does not oppose trade relations between the private sectors of our allies and those in China.”[22]  Another recent discussion between Taiwan and one of its Caribbean allies is Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.  In mid-February, Ambassador Camillo Gonsalves, St Vincent and the Grenadines’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations, met with Taiwanese officials over the construction of the Caribbean country’s international airport and other issues. The airport is scheduled for completion in 2013 and is largely dependent on foreign investment; Taiwan signed a MoU in 2006 for a $15 million grant and a $10 million soft loan.[23]

Taiwan lost an ally last decade when the Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, decided to sever relations with Taiwan in favor of China last decade. Writing for NACLA’s Report on the Americas, Professor Diana Thorburn, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, explained that the Taiwan-China issue had become an election issue in 2005. Thorburn explains that the issue “overshadowed” the general elections and that “Taiwanese flags adorned the homes of opposition supporters.”[24] A March 2004 BBC report explained that, at the time, “China had agreed to give Dominica more than $100 million in aid over the next five years. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Eugene Chien, condemned what he called China’s dollar diplomacy in so aggressively wooing away Dominica. He said it was a huge sum for a country with just 70,000 people.”[25]

In addition, Taiwan is currently at odds with Grenada as the Caribbean government seems to be currently unable to pay a loan owed by St Georges after the closure of Maurice Bishop International Airport.[26] Grenada recognized Taiwan until 2005, when the Caribbean state had a crippling debt and took Beijing’s financial aid to switch diplomatic recognition. A March 5 report by Ezra Fieser in the Christian Science Monitor explains that “seven years later, playing up to China’s game of dollar diplomacy has come back to haunt Grenada. Taiwan is now calling in loans it made when the countries were diplomatic allies.”[27]

At least, Taiwan can rest assured that its relations with Saint Lucia remain in good standing. In January of this year, there were rumors that Castries would sever relations with Taipei after a new government came to power last November. A CaribDirect report explains that “Kenny Anthony, the island nation’s new prime minister, had previously accused Taiwan’s Ambassador Tom Chou of influencing St. Lucia’s election by supporting the then-ruling United Workers Party (UWP) and added he would review the diplomatic relations with Taiwan after taking power.”[28] However, the new Prime Minister, member of the Labour Party, reverted the island’s policy after coming to power and has sustained relations with Taipei. Saint Lucia is one of those countries which has switched its recognition back to Taipei from Beijing in the past. It first established relations with Taiwan in 1984, switched to recognizing China in 1997 and then switched back to Taiwan in 2007.

In order to foster more trade, between Taiwan and the Caribbean, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) sent a trade mission to Saint Lucia and Puerto Rico last October to carry out meetings and exhibitions. In a press release at the time, TAITRA explained that the mission would “[bring] the latest products as well as new opportunities for business and trade. The delegation comprises 6 dynamic enterprises representing various industries, including industrial machinery, electronics, hardware, toys, and foods.”[29]

Finally, Taiwan has been very active in the reconstruction efforts in Haiti after the devastating January 2010 earthquake that struck the Caribbean state. In February 2012, Food for the Poor, the largest charitable organization in the United Sates, publicly praised Taipei’s post-disaster efforts, going as far as inviting Ray Mou, director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Miami, to take part in a charity dinner that would raise funds to build villages in Haiti.[30]

Chinese Migration: A Topic Not Often Discussed

There is an issue regarding Chinese presence in the Caribbean that is relatively under-studied, and that is Chinese migration to these island states. Large segments of the Chinese population have moved, lived, and flourished throughout the world, and the Caribbean is no exception. Unfortunately, not much has been written about Chinese migration to the Caribbean; hence more in-depth field research is needed in order to begin building a much more complete picture of the situation in the region.

In an interview with COHA, a Puerto Rican lawyer who has researched Chinese migration patterns explained that “there was little migration to the island in the 19th century, particularly compared to the migration that occurred in the 1990s and early years of this century.” According to the 2010 U.S, census, there are around 2,000 individuals who regard themselves as Chinese in Puerto Rico, but Bu Dey Chen (who goes as Carlos Chao), a Chinese government official in Puerto Rico, has stated that the number is closer to 6,000.[31] The aforementioned lawyer explained that the Chinese community is a tight nit group so not much is reported about them. In any case, Chinese migrants to the island have, for the most part, managed to flourish, opening their own restaurants and businesses, quickly becoming part of the upper middle class. There are also professors of Chinese descent in institutes of higher learning like the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez.

An important academic text that has researched this issue is The Chinese in Latin America and the Caribbean (2009), edited by Walton Lok Lai and Tan Chee-Beng. This important research project includes chapters that touch on Sinophobia in the late 19th century/early 20th century in the Americas and the Chinese in Central America. An interesting chapter of the edited volume was authored by Kathleen Lopez and discussed the Chinese in Cuba; the article starts with explaining how each June 3rd, elderly Cubans and diplomats from the PRC meet in the Regla port to commemorate the arrival of the first shipload of 200 Chinese laborers in 1847 (p.211). The article gives a very complete picture of the migration waves that have settled in Cuba, particularly in Havana.

Another academic text that touches on this issue is a 2008 piece by Shin Yamamoto, a professor of Yoccachi University in Japan. In his analysis, the academic explains that

“the Chinese community is counted as one of the three major races in the Caribbean alongside Africans and East Indians because of their economic power. Many chain restaurants or film developing stores are run or owned by Chinese; the youngsters in Jamaica, respectfully or just from their desire to get money or bottles of Coke, call them ‘Sir Chin’ or ‘Miss Chin.”[32]

Yamamoto highlights the case of Sean Paul, a famous Jamaican reggae artist, who is an example of intercultural relations in the Caribbean. The artist’s mother is Chinese Jamaican and his father is Portuguese Jamaican.

Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, understanding the Chinese diaspora in the Caribbean and how well it has merged with local cultures over the years is a field that has to be researched in greater depth. One academic that has carried out important research on the topic is Lok Siu, an Associate Professor at the University of Austin, that co-edited (with Rachel Parenas) Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions.

A September 2011 article in the Jamaican Observer explains, according to an official of the European Delegation in Trinidad and Tobago, that the Caribbean attracts a large number of illegal immigrants from China, among other poor countries.[33] The article quotes the Charge d’Affaires at the European Delegation in Trinidad and Tobago, Stelios Christopoulos, as saying that “very little data is available to establish the in and outflow of people from and to Caribbean countries. From what we do know however, the Caribbean has one of the largest diasporic communities in the world, in proportion to the population.”[34]

Conclusions

The Caribbean states, due to their lack of abundance of supply of natural resources, and its scant potential for economic growth, and the controversial nature of Taiwan’s recognition, means that many regional states can expect to be actively courted by Beijing and Taipei simultaneously . Currently, a number of regional governments recognize Taiwan as an independent state, but this could certainly change in the future, particularly if China threatens to take its business elsewhere unless these nations alter their stance to reflect the one-China policy. The issue of Chinese migration to the Caribbean, both historical and current, is an important topic which is worthy of further research, particularly as Chinese laborers continue to permanently relocate to the Caribbean. In any case, the speed of globalization means that the Caribbean, so geographically distant from Asia, nevertheless is becoming a very important front in the struggle for political influence, financial investments, as well as an important component of the struggle over state recognition dispute between China and Taiwan.

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