Friends on both sides

Eyeballing Jamaica from the West and from the East

LANCE NEITA

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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The prime minister's visit to China last week came across as a positive for Jamaica. His trip follows the temporary closure of Alpart, and it sends a strong message that economic and cultural ties remain fixed.

Jamaica must move with the times. Our cozying up with the Chinese president seems to have raised eyebrows in Washington. But America has nothing to fear. Jamaica is not giving up the USA, now or never.

Fifty years ago our first prime minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante, was succinct when asked to state our foreign policy. “We are with the West,” he said. Nice and simple, and no equivocation. At that time, China was known as Red China, and Russia and America were eyeballing each other on the Cold War front.

According to the prime minister, Jamaica was firmly in the western camp, and in case his cousin, Opposition Leader Norman Manley, tried to slip in any counter to that policy, Bustamante went one step further to declare in the House that “there is no colour red in the JLP [Jamaica Labour Party], nor in my Government.”

Today the world has changed, but Jamaica still remains a firm friend and an active partner with the USA on important multilateral issues. I quote from a March 2018 Fact Sheet published by the US State Department — and I assume that little has changed since then, notwithstanding any perceived or controversial political directions — “the United States and Jamaica maintain strong and productive relations, based on trust and mutual interest. This close friendship is built on a foundation of people-to-people ties and a vibrant Jamaican-American community.

“The United States is Jamaica's most important trading partner,” the paper continues to say. And here are some important facts to keep in mind when we are tempted to shrug off America's interests and make comparisons to recent surges in Chinese investment.

“Jamaica is an important destination for US investment. Under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partner Act and other trade measures, over 80 per cent of Jamaican exports enter the US market duty-free. The United States provides over $100 million in support through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) for expanding and diversifying energy sources available on the island.

“The two countries have an investment treaty and a double taxation agreement. More than 80 US firms have offices in the country and hundreds of other US firms sell their products through local distributors. Over a million American tourists visit Jamaica each year, and hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans visit the United States. The large Jamaican-American community sends billions of dollars in remittances to Jamaica annually.”

Today the “Red China” of its fiercely communist days in the 1950s and early 60s no longer exists. Modern China is an economic powerhouse rivalling the USA for status as preferred partner throughout the developing world.

On October 1st, 1949, the People's Republic of China, or “Red China”, became formally established. Some 10 years ago this column was welcoming modern China to our shores. I said then that China's great leap forward for interaction with the rest of the world “has landed in Jamaica with the announcements of mega- partnerships in sugar, housing, construction, and other potential areas of interest”.

This so-called invasion was regarded as a clear indication that China's strategic investment plan to spread its commercial influence across international borders included Jamaica, which they looked at as a natural hub for creating new business, shipping, and marketing ventures in the Caribbean.

Now the expansion of China into the Caribbean and into the hemisphere has not been one-sided, as it has also opened our doors to foreign investment in auto industry, computer technology, commerce, highways, manufacturing, construction, and other major enterprise.

We considered then, and still do, that Jamaica would have been short-changed if we were left out of the economic miracle taking place in the Far East. After all, we were not strangers to China and, in terms of playing hosts to our emerging partners, we had a cultural advantage based on some 150 years of Chinese integration and assimilation into the Jamaican society.

The first Chinese immigrants came in the 1850s, and by the year 1930 some 4,000 had immigrated to Jamaica. They came as indentured farmers, and in the early period were deployed to the large cultivations to work in the planting of coconuts, bananas and sugar cane.

The Chinese genius for trading came with the early immigrants, who started the line of grocery shops that become their trademarks across the country. Known colloquially as 'Chiney shops', they could be found in almost every village and town and were the forerunners of the grocery and dry goods business establishments, including the supermarkets that first opened in Jamaica in the 1950s.

The Chiney shop of my village and boyhood days was manned by “Shim” and “Madam”. If the shop was empty, you would knock on the wooden counter and call out “Serve!”. Madam would appear mysteriously to fill the order of salt fish, corned meat, rice, flour, and cornmeal, and other basic items. If the order was substantial she would slip a Chinese sweetie into your hand, accompanied by a conspiratorial wink.

My generation should have fond memories of the string of comic books stretched across the shop space from wall to wall, and corner to corner. And Chinese sweets and toffees were considered the catch of the day over the regular mint balls, “Busta backbone”, and Paradise plums down the road.

Significant importation

In 1995 this column said: “We will watch with interest if there is to be any significant importation of Chinese skills or labour attached to these new business ventures. However, this should not be the case, as the sugar industry, for example, is well-staffed, managed and operated by Jamaicans with proven capabilities and years of experience.

“The other concern expressed as a fear in some quarters is that China appears set on taking over the wheels of our industry. This suggestion should be dismissed as out of touch with the concept of globalisation, which we have embraced. Our trade and commerce has, for years, been in and out of the hands of multinationals, as well as Jamaicans. The Syrians, the Jews, the Indians, the Chinese, the Americans, and the Europeans have been a part of our corporate landscape, establishing partnerships and dynasties in Jamaica that have served the country well.

“In this instance of a new phase of foreign investment, we look to the Government to protect our interests. The Chinese are adept at negotiation, and we must seek and share full disclosure of all conditions attached. The discussions appear to be moving smoothly and in a spirit of harmony.

“Perhaps, now is the time to broker a deal for the upgrading and conversion of the Trelawny Greenfield Stadium — in which the Chinese have some maternal interest — into a super sports development centre that would bring athletes and sports persons from all over the world for training and world circuit events.

“The Chinese and their disciplined approach to work, and the emphasis they place on education and family life, have set an example for the Jamaican society to emulate. Chinese-Jamaicans have made positive and lasting contributions to Jamaica's social and economic development.”

Well, almost 10 years later, the debate continues, not just on Jamaica-China relationships, but with the USA as a strong first, second or third party depending on how you see them.

The shots fired across the bow by Admiral Craig Faller, commander of the United States Southern Command, at his press conference on Wednesday, give a clear indication of his Government's displeasure, not necessarily with Jamaica, but with China's great leap forward that appears to threaten the United States' zone of influence in this part of the world.

The Prime Minister Andrew Holness's coziness with the President of China Xi Jingping, Premier Li Keqiang, municipal leaders, and other public and private sector officials and investors in the heart of China created some amount of tut-tuts and raised eyebrows in the corridors of power in Washington.

But his visit was well timed. It followed the temporary closure of JISCO/Alpart. The message was of reassurance that opportunities for further trade deals and exchanges exist. These are assurances not just to China, but to Jamaicans who would have felt let down by the closure of the St Elizabeth based alumina plant.

But as said earlier America has nothing to fear. An American visa is valued far greater than a Chinese one. Come to think of it I have never seen a Chinese visa or, for that matter, a Chinese green card. Perhaps theirs would be an orange card, splitting this little controversy over recent visa revocations into political sides, one green card over here, one orange over there. When this issue is resolved then will Phillip Paulwell end up with an orange card, and Minister Daryl Vaz with a green one?

Just having a little fun and not saying too much on this subject as I value my little visa, even if I don't use it often nowadays. It has taken me to weddings and to funerals, to parties and to graduations, to family and friends, and I confess, a little shopping here and there, but not much of that.

The world continues to turn and turn. We are with the West, but we are also with the Wast. In present economic circumstances we don't have much choice. Just thank our lucky stars we have good friends on both sides.

Lance Neita is a freelance writer and public relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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