The leaders of eight Caribbean nations toasted a new friend at a private luncheon this summer at Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. But the host was not Trinidadian premier Kamla Persad-Bissessar, but Xi Jinping, China’s president, accompanied by his folk singer wife Peng Liyuan.
Over a spicy meal, Mr Xi made clear to the heads of state and government that China would not be a spectator to the region’s economic difficulties. Ms Persad-Bissessar later said Beijing had promised $3bn of soft loans and investment. The Chinese embassy announced plans to set up a Caribbean scholarship programme.
“We see in your China Dream a splendid opportunity for China to become a model for the world,” Ms Persad-Bissessar said in her toast to Mr Xi.
The most important issues were discussed in private meetings with each country after the lunch, according to a top Caribbean official. “They told us that we don’t ask for enough, but gave us a grant of Rmb50m ($8m) and begged us to spend it as soon as possible,” he said.
Mr Xi’s Caribbean visit – the first by a Chinese head of state – was a demonstration of Beijing’s ambition to cement ties with countries in America’s back yard. China’s charm offensive comes at an opportune time: the Caribbean countries need help to fight off widespread economic problems and many sense a slow and steady erosion of Washington’s position as the region’s leading power.
The Caribbean push takes China into a sensitive region for the US. Some of the cold war’s most turbulent moments came as a result of clashes over countries around the Caribbean and Central America. In 2001 President George W Bush called the Caribbean the US’s “third border”.
But the region’s politicians say that the US has become an absentee superpower in the wake of the financial crisis and because of its commitments in the Middle East. China’s munificence is eagerly welcomed.
“I certainly did not frown when the new Chinese president told us in Port of Spain recently that China was going to invest $3bn in the Caribbean,” says Freundel Stuart, prime minister of Barbados. “We welcome all the help we can get.”
Signs of China’s burgeoning interest in the Caribbean are apparent everywhere. Trinidad’s steel-and-glass National Academy of Performing Arts was paid for by Beijing. China has also paid for cricket stadiums across the region. Some Chinese embassies are being expanded.
“In entering the Caribbean, China doesn’t really care about the US’s feelings, it mainly cares about how the countries there see us,” says Wang Peng, secretary-general of the Central America and Caribbean Research Centre at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank.
The stock of Chinese investment in the Caribbean increased by more than 500 per cent between 2003 and 2012 to almost $500m, according to official Chinese statistics. Since then several big projects have started, and more are expected in the coming years, including highways, ports and hospitals. In a prominent $65m project, the China Harbour Engineering Company has rebuilt the main road to Kingston airport, building increased sea defences for a road that has a history of storm damage.
Joe Biden, US vice-president, visited regional leaders ahead of this summer’s Chinese delegation. Yet some in the Caribbean suspect that he scrambled at short notice once the US state department realised Mr Xi was meeting all the local premiers with ties to Beijing.
“He [Mr Biden] said China would give us roads and hospitals and said there was no problem if you take it, but made it clear that they are there for the Caribbean as well,” says the senior Caribbean official. “But the optics were a little strange.”
Despite the complaints from Caribbean politicians, the US does not ignore the region. In addition to its heavy spending on the drug war in areas such as Colombia, Washington helps fight resurgent cocaine trafficking in the Caribbean and has spent some $263m through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative since it was established in 2009. The US Agency for International Development is also active across the region. But the US eschews the kind of grand, symbolic investments and outright budgetary aid that China has lavished on many Caribbean countries.
Politicians and officials aroun d the region are quick to bemoan this. The few countries that still have ties with Taiwan – and are therefore missing out on Beijing’s investment spree – are particularly frustrated.
Denzil Douglas, prime minister of St Kitts and Nevis, an island federation in the eastern Caribbean with relations with Taipei, hopes that the sight of rising Chinese influence will compel the US to rethink. “We told Biden clearly: you have to do more than just traditional national security policies?.?.?.?We said we needed money to help the Caribbean be a positive frontier.”
Until recently many experts saw China’s presence in the Caribbean as unremarkable. Its generosity was largely the result of a diplomatic war between China and Taiwan for official recognition. Promises of money led to several countries switching relations between Taipei and Beijing, and occasionally back to their original friend again. Aside from diplomatic recognition, each Caribbean statelet also enjoys a full vote in the UN General Assembly and other organisations – attractive assets for any budding superpower.
While the Chinese investment splurge has been eye-catching in the context of the Caribbean’s small size, it is minuscule compared with the overall wave of Chinese foreign investment in Latin America and Africa.
But Xi Jinping’s visit changes the calculation. The cheque book war between China and Taiwan for recognition is less of an issue, after a tacit understanding between the two sides since 2008. The Chinese leader does not visit countries merely to sign a few loan and grant agreements – and certainly not in countries as small as those in the Caribbean – without a deeper strategic intent.
“It was clearly a major visit. Not many heads of state come to this region, and the president of China is a big deal,” observes a western diplomat based in the region. “It’s hard to believe that the Caribbean is a strategic growth opportunity for Chinese companies, so clearly there’s a political angle.”
Regional officials insist that there is nothing untoward about China’s growing presence. “Their interest is primarily economic,” says Peter Phillips, Jamaica’s finance minister. “There is no military or strategic reach into the Caribbean. And there’s no indication that they want that either.”
Others are more sceptical, pointing out that the economic benefits are tiny for China. Trinidad and Tobago enjoys sizeable oil and gas reserves, but they are not large enough to matter greatly to Beijing. Jamaica and Guyana are leading bauxite producers but on the whole the region’s natural resources are not sufficiently sizeable to matter much to China. Higher wages and heavy unionisation make Caribbean countries unattractive investment destinations and tiny populations mean they will never be important export markets.
Some countries have even formed military-to-military relationships with China. The Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force has had a relationship with the People’s Liberation Army since 1999, which has gradually deepened through aid, reciprocal visits and the training of Trinidadian officers in China. Last year the PLA’s band played at Trinidad’s National Academy for Performing Art for the country’s 50th independence anniversary, with music ranging from Chinese folk songs to The Beatles and Abba.
Barbados’s military also have ties with the PLA, after losing US aid for refusing to sign a Bilateral Immunity Agreement that would prevent it from surrendering US citizens to the International Criminal Court – a campaign waged by the Bush administration.
“We are a sovereign country and we won’t sell our soul,” says Mia Mottley, the Barbados attorney-general at the time of the BIA imbroglio. She now leads the country’s opposition Barbados Labour party and insists that her country will stand up to Beijing, too, if required. “If we want to say [something] to China we will do so, just like we did with the US on the criminal court,” Ms Mottley says. “We did not become independent to become subservient?.?.?.?We are equal to China, even though we are smaller.”
Not everyone in the Caribbean is enthusiastic about the Chinese presence, however. Several countries have declined to de-recognise Taiwan, in large part because of the conditions often attached to Chinese largesse: any project must be overwhelmingly built by Chinese labourers and engineers, and use Chinese materials.
That insistence is contentious in countries with high unemployment. Some Chinese workers stay and compete against local labour. Ricky Skerritt, the tourism and transport minister of St Kitts and Nevis, is careful not to criticise China directly. But his fulsome praise of Taipei’s policies tacitly highlights a common concern over China in the Caribbean. “If Taiwan lends or gives you money for an infrastructure project they do so on merit, and they don’t insist on you bringing in their engineers or workers, planting a bit of their country in the middle of ours,” he says.
Nonetheless, there is excitement about the role China could play in the region. “They are becoming a colonial force in the Caribbean, but at least not in the traditional way,” says Avinash Persaud, a prominent Barbadian economist. “It’s all voluntary, there are no gunboats involved.” Indeed, some countries appear to regret nailing their flag to the Taiwanese mast.
The Dominican Republic is the biggest regional country with ties to Taipei. Analysts say that the authorities would probably gladly switch to Beijing if the two sides of the Taiwan Strait were still locked in overt competition. “We’ve missed the boat, undoubtedly,” says Bernardo Vega, a former central bank governor.
However, in time, China is likely to discover that an empire of influence is easier to acquire than maintain. The US has shied away from grandiose generosity for good reason, analysts say, adding that Beijing is unlikely to pour money into the leaky bucket of Caribbean state finances indefinitely.
Washington’s hegemony over the tropical islands is unlikely to be supplanted by Beijing soon, says Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
He nonetheless urges vigilance: “The US should pay more attention to China in the Caribbean, even if it is only at an early stage.”
Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini in Beijing. The reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
进军加勒比海，意味着中国踏入了美国的敏感地区。冷战期间一些最为动荡的时刻正是发端于加勒比海和中美洲国家的冲突。2001年，乔治·W·布什(George W Bush)总统曾将加勒比海地区称为美国的“第三边界”。
中国对加勒比海兴趣加大的迹象随处可见。在特立尼达和多巴哥，钢架与玻璃幕墙结构的国家表演艺术学院(National Academy of Performing Arts)由中国出资修建。中国还出资修建了加勒比海地区各国的多座板球场。一些中国大使馆也在扩建中。
中国官方统计数据显示，中国在加勒比海地区投资额在2003至2012年间增长逾500%，达到近5亿美元。自那以后，已有数个大型工程启动，预计未来几年内还将有更多工程动工，包括高速公路、港口和医院。在一项引人注目的6500万美元项目中，中国港湾建设集团(China Harbour Engineering Company)重建了通往牙买加首都金斯敦机场的主要公路，还为这条历史上屡次被风暴毁坏的公路加固了防波堤。
尽管受到加勒比海地区政客的埋怨，但美国确实没有忽视这一地区。除了斥巨资在哥伦比亚等地区开展禁毒战争之外，美国政府还协助打击加勒比海地区死灰复燃的可卡因贩运活动，并通过2009年成立的加勒比海域安全行动(Caribbean Basin Security Initiative)累计支出约2.63亿美元。美国国际开发署（United States Agency for International Development，简称：USAID）也在该地区积极活动。但美国避免大手笔、标志性的投资和直接预算援助，而中国则在这方面向许多加勒比海国家一掷千金。
直到不久以前，很多专家还认为中国在加勒比海的活动不足挂齿。它的慷慨主要源自为赢得相关国家承认而同台湾开打的外交战。金钱承诺导致数国在台北与北京之间摇摆不定，偶尔还会与原来的友邦重修于好。除了外交承认之外，每个加勒比海小国都在联和国大会(UN General Assembly)和其他组织拥有完整的投票权——这对新兴超级大国而言可算是宝贵的财富。
一些国家甚至与中国缔结了两军关系。特立尼达和多巴哥国防军(Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force)与中国的解放军自1999年以来开展往来，这层关系通过援助、互访和在华训练特立尼达军官而逐渐深化。去年，解放军乐团在特立尼达和多巴哥国家表演艺术学院为该国独立50周年纪念日表演，曲目既有中国民歌，也有披头士(The Beatles)和阿巴乐队(Abba)的作品。
巴巴多斯军方也与解放军有交往。之前，该国失去了美国的援助，原因是其拒绝签署布什政府推动的《双边豁免协议》(Bilateral Immunity Agreement)。该协议规定签署国不能将美国公民移交国际刑事法庭(International Criminal Court)。
“我们是主权国家，不会出卖自己的灵魂，”在《双边豁免协议》引发纠葛时担任巴巴多斯总检察长的米娅?莫特利(Mia Motley)表示。作为反对党巴巴多斯工党(Barbados Labour Party)的现任领导人，她坚称她的国家在需要时也会对中国坚持立场。“我们会对中国直言不讳地表达我们的想法，就像我们在刑事法庭问题上对美国的态度一样，”莫特利表示，“当初我们走向独立，就不是为了要对谁低三下四……我们与中国是平起平坐的，尽管我们更小。”
吉密欧(Jamil Anderlini)北京补充报道。本报道得到普利策危机报道中心(Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting)的拨款支持
刚表态过的朋友 (1 人)