Barbados recently announcing that it wants to become a republic and break away from the rule of Queen Elizabeth is not the only control issue being discussed because China now has an inordinate presence in the Caribbean.
Through its emergence as an economic superpower, China has engaged in “debt diplomacy”, lending to smaller countries to gain leverage. Barbados and its other Caribbean Commonwealth counterparts are among the most recent targets of this campaign. This form of diplomacy has forced far larger and richer countries to surrender sovereignty and influence to an assertive Beijing.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is involved in 138 countries on six continents and it is focused on the Caribbean, part of China’s strategic thrust into Latin America.
Chinese loans for badly needed ports, roads, bridges, telecommunications and oil terminals come without the strings western investors attach and are often not commercially viable but subsidised by Beijing’s foreign aid budget. Countries such as Sri Lanka have bitter stories to tell of what happens when they are unable to repay the debt. It was forced to cede control of its Chinese-funded port three years ago, handing a major strategic asset to Beijing.
The Caribbean offers clear strategic and trade gains for China. Planned projects include hundreds of miles of road through Guyana, reaching untapped markets of landlocked millions in Brazil, and linking them to a rehabilitated port in Trinidad and Tobago. Barbados signed up to the BRI in February last year, just before Jamaica.
Yet only months later Jamaica suspended all borrowing from China over concerns about its indebtedness and a desire to balance its relationship with an increasingly alarmed Washington. Jamaica cancelled a Chinese-funded port project amid intense pressure over the environmental impact. Beijing, undeterred, switched to ports in Trinidad, Antigua and the Bahamas instead.
On Grand Bahama Island, a Hong Kong-based company has spent $3 billion developing and expanding a deep-water container port. The Freeport Container Port’s Chinese and Bahamian backers expect to benefit from increased shipping through the region as a result of the expansion of the Panama Canal, as well as an overall boost in trade between China and Latin America and the Caribbean.