IN another two weeks, Arthur Williams will shake the label 'ambassador-designate' to China and touch down in the capital city of Beijing, ready to seek ways of maximising Jamaica's exports, and bring the Caribbean island's culture to the populous Asian nation.
Fresh from serving as Jamaica high commissioner to Trinidad & Tobago, with responsibility for 16 other countries in the English and Dutch Caribbean region, Ambassador Williams will take over the important role of heading a diplomatic mission in one of the most important countries central to Jamaica's sustenance, growth, and survival. Some have even described it as the number one diplomatic mission.
As ambassador to China, the position is one that many in diplomatic circles would envy. Outside of China, Williams' diplomatic hands also reach out to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, and North Korea.
For the former Senator and Cabinet minister there is no turning back, ifs, buts, or maybes. He wants, in the next four years of his posting, to put Jamaica in a place where it has never been before, as far as trade goes.
"Maximising the potential for Jamaica's exports is high on my list of priorities," the attorney-at-law told the Jamaica Observer in a midweek interview last week at AC Hotel Kingston.
"We must also do as much as we can to bring our culture to China — that in itself would expose us so that more tourists will want to come. We had an increase of tourists from China in the last four or five years but we are still at a low level. When I speak of culture, I speak not only about Jamaica's, but Caribbean culture. There are nine Caribbean countries that have embassies in Beijing so we must can find a way of introducing our Caribbean culture. If China is exposed to Jamaica and its culture they would more want to come to this region," Ambassador Williams reasoned.
The time spent in Trinidad & Tobago has prepared him, he insisted in the interview, on the tougher task ahead. Consular matters formed the brunt of his activities in the southern Caribbean republic, known popularly for its Calypso music, fine cuisine, cricket greats, and delightful women, one of whom he married three months ago. In China, though, the reverse is expected — and that's why, he reckons, trade negotiations will be so important.
Running the downsized high commission of 10 people in Port of Spain showed up challenges but the staff managed to handle the workload that included over 2,000 applications for passports alone, annually, Ambassador Williams revealed.
The Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas signed by the Caribbean Community (Caricom) in July 2001 introduced free movement of skilled labour across the region, which led to an explosion of Jamaicans in all Caribbean islands.
In later years, more categories of workers were added to the free movement, resulting in several Jamaicans immigrating to eastern Caribbean islands, which created a much higher demand for consular work, acquiring passports and citizenship, suggested Ambassador Williams, a former Jamaica board representative to the Inter-American Development Bank.
"The balance between consular work and other matters [was] overwhelming. We had to devise systems to properly manage that whole area, we had to introduce systems along the way to reduce human error and get things moving faster, and to encourage eligible people to use online passport application for adult passports [so as] to take that burden off us. It was very, very demanding work.
"There are four foreign service officers — myself, a counsellor, first secretary, and the accountant. So, two people would do consular work; and there are six what you would call local staff — although [when the term local is used it would mean] five of them are Jamaicans who have lived in Trinidad for a long time. It's only the driver was a Trinidadian.
"We had to manage all that work and look after the interest of every Jamaican. Once a Jamaican approached us, we had to find a solution to the problems or issues.
"Sometimes we had Jamaicans dying, the body can't get back to Jamaica because there are no funds, and so on ... we don't have a budget for that but we often lean on the Jamaican community for help, and nine out of 10 times they do.
"There is a vibrant Jamaican community in Trinidad and Tobago. I was visible and accessible, and people appreciated that fact that I was there for them," he said.
He is ready for the logical change that is set to greet him far away.
"In China it's going to be virtually the exact opposite of what I was doing in Trinidad. There are relatively few Jamaicans in that region so the consular work will be minimal. But the other part of the work — trade, investment and so on — will be the focus, it has to be the focus. China is a world power, whether anybody likes it or not. Already the Chinese are doing a lot of business in Jamaica — the highways, other buildings, they recently did the children's hospital in Montego Bay — a number of projects they have done.
"Their Government has given a lot of scholarships to Jamaican young people, as well as short-term courses to other people, including civil servants, to study in China.
"I am well prepared for the new environment. In this business the different departments in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs give you a brief, so they look after you properly and you end up having a good knowledge of all the issues that may arise. One of the things that surprised me a little is the high number of people in Jamaica who do business in China, and that has been going on for a few years now.
"There are areas that we have to explore to see how we can maximise exports. We started some years ago with Blue Mountain Coffee, although we have to appreciate that China is so big that we can't supply all its needs, but we can maximise our exports.
"Recently we started exporting lobsters and sea cucumbers, another big market, and we have to find other products too that we can send off to China because it's a wide open market."
The new man in China also has, high on his agenda, plans to forge partnerships in sport, what with Jamaica's international reputation in various areas, in particular athletics.
"My understanding from colleague ambassadors is that sports partnership is one of the areas that the Chinese would like to explore more. The Minister of Sport Olivia Grange will give me a briefing as well before I depart and we will see how we can manage that.
"Interestingly, that's one of the areas that we worked hard on in Trinidad, and the minister of sport in Trinidad came up here last year for boys' and girls' championships, and we have been working closely. G C Foster College [of Physical Education and Sport] had a team down there at the end of August, seven or eight of them, lecturing their Trinidadian counterparts on how to structure and develop certain programmes; they did some good work in that area. That's another avenue that we can help China with. Don't forget the athletics stadium in Beijing — the Bird's Nest — and the memories that Usain Bolt left behind," said Ambassador Williams, a former chief of staff for then Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, now prime minister.
Following his return from Trinidad & Tobago, Ambassador Williams has held discussions with Chinese Ambassador to Jamaica Chen Daojiang and his staff in Kingston. Interestingly, the last meeting he had before he left Trinidad & Tobago was with the Chinese ambassador based in that country.
As for Ambassador Williams practising law again in the future?
"Definitely no!" was the Munro College old boy's swift response. "It would be like starting all over again, like from the first day you went into law, because so much has happened. I am out of practice for 12 years, and I am not familiar with some of the new developments in law."
Ambassador Williams will replace Ambassador Antonia Hugh, an international energy consultant with Chinese and Jamaican roots, in Beijing.
Jamaica first established an embassy and appointed an ambassador to China in 1992, with former Member of Parliament and sugar industry executive Derrick Heaven handed that task. Heaven also served, among other duties, as high commissioner to the United Kingdom.