Missing the fast boat to China
RELATIONS with small island developing states are generally not important to large, developed countries and even more so for global powers, unless they are perceived to be in a strategic location from a military or naval perspective.
However, China devotes significant attention to small island developing states of Caricom, providing development assistance which, while small for China, has assumed considerable importance in these countries.
Part of the driving force behind China's engagement is the rivalry with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition by these small Caricom states which have voice and vote in international and regional organisations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.
Those governments that recognise China see the benefits as generous and vital development assistance as well as having as an ally a superpower that has some interest in their issues and could defend their concerns. Unfortunately, some Caricom countries opportunistically sell their diplomatic allegiance to the highest bidder, switching from China to Taiwan and vice versa depending on which has done something for them lately.
Whether China's particular interest in small island developing states continues and for how long could depend on the intensity of the rivalry with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition. To the extent that there is an abatement of the rivalry or agreed truce between China and Taiwan then the importance of those Caricom states in China's foreign policy could wane, with a consequent decline in development assistance to these countries.
Such a contraction in Chinese aid would be a very serious loss to governments in the region. Whatever their motive, China has been seen as a very good friend in a time of need.
The relationship between China and Caricom states is dominated by development assistance reflecting the primacy of Chinese political motives and, in some cases, the shameful mendicancy of Caricom governments. But this alone means missing the Chinese boat to economic growth.
The Chinese boat to boosting the region's flagging economic growth is the enormous potential for trade, direct foreign investment and tourism which remains underdeveloped or undeveloped. The government and private sector of Caricom should be doing more to export to China, encourage Chinese foreign investment and promote tourism emanating from China.
Caricom must start now to earn the foreign exchange to repay the exponentially increasing loans from China and elsewhere. This mounting debt is not only an economic burden but it will give the Chinese and other lender countries considerable leverage in the economic and political affairs of the small beholden and indebted Caricom states. Instead of buying our support they will soon be able to demand it and to use it to exact special treatment for their firms and investors.
But let us not be naive. Superpowers are always imperialist whether they are capitalists or communists. China is the latest of the superpowers. Their approach has not been overtly imperialist and Beijing has said its aid has no strings attached. Only time can tell.