BY JULIAN RICHARDSON Assistant Business Co-ordinator firstname.lastname@example.org
BEIJING, China — As Jamaica and China celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations, the small Caribbean island hopes to solidify strong existing ties while it builds on what it sees as outstanding trade opportunities with the economic giant from Asia.
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller arrived in Beijing yesterday for a five-day official visit to the communist country — a visit which Jamaica's Ambassador to China Ralph Thomas described as "very important and significant" for Jamaica.
"The prime minister is here to meet with our important partner with which we have endured a very long friendship, beginning with Jamaica's position on the One-China Policy," Thomas said after a welcoming ceremony for Simpson Miller at the Beijing International Airport.
"Her presence here is very important in cementing this important relationship and in ensuring that certain matters, which are underway, can be taken further at the highest level," he told journalists.
Thomas said "there are specific transactions which we are hoping to hear more about", but did not disclose any details.
"As early as tomorrow we may begin to hear some more details, but I will leave that to the prime minister," the ambassador said.
The Chinese have rapidly expanded their economic footprint in Jamaica over the last decade with billions of dollars in foreign direct investment to the island. Kingston is the Caribbean headquarters for China Harbour Engineering Company, which has been contracted to conduct major infrastructural projects in the country. Another huge Chinese investor, Complant, purchased three sugar factories and leased 30,000 hectares of cane-growing lands from the Government of Jamaica while committing to invest $156 million in improvements in fields and factories over a four-year period.
Simpson Miller is scheduled to meet with representatives of both companies today as part of a jam-packed itinerary that also includes meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
She is accompanied by a delegation, including Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Minister AJ Nicholson; Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change Minister Robert Pickersgill; as well as Dr Carlton Davis, special envoy and chief advisor.
A small business delegation, including Jamaica Chamber of Commerce head Francis Kennedy, has also accompanied the prime minister to explore trade and investment opportunities with officials and business interests in China.
The Jamaican Embassy in Beijing has arranged a match-making forum in collaboration with the China Council for International Investment Promotion to link the business people from Jamaica with counterpart Chinese companies based on interests.
"It's a very strong signal that Jamaica is open for business and serious attention is being paid to this area of development with our largest trading partner," Thomas said.
Indeed, a major area of focus will be on increasing Jamaica's exports to China, the most populous market in the world with 1.4 billion people. Jamaica in 2012 alone had a reported trade deficit of US$755.4 million with China, the largest among Caribbean Community countries.
"There are opportunities to export for the Jamaican private sector who are represented on this trip, and many will be looking to find better ways to meet the needs," Thomas said, suggesting that there is particularly a great opportunity for Jamaicans to expand the consumption of coffee in China.
"Blue Mountain coffee is well known at this point. With over 1.4 billion [people], just a small portion of the market in China could be very significant for Jamaica," the ambassador said.
Thomas, who served for 22 years as vice president/regional manager of the Bank of New York, has been serving in China for less than a month. He replaced Courtenay Rattray, who was appointed Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.
He was reportedly personally selected by Simpson Miller in her mission to have an envoy there who fully understands economics and who can negotiate meaningful business deals for Jamaica.
Apart from Thomas, Simpson Miller was also greeted on landing by China's Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang; Chinese Ambassador to Jamaica Zheng Quingdian and other officials at the airport.
"It is nice to be here in China," Simpson Miller told journalists from her elegant state guest room in Beijing after a nearly 20-hour-long journey by plane from Jamaica to the Chinese capital and around a 45-minute drive through the city in a more than 30-vehicle motorcade, which included scores of police who blocked off traffic.
It is her first visit to China as head of government and follows bilateral talks with President Xi, who met with Caribbean Community leaders in Trinidad and Tobago in June.