Projecting soft power into the Caribbean

July 31, 2014 by Cameron Frecklington

Cricket and China don’t usually go together in the public imagination. But over the last decade, in one part of the cricketing world – the Caribbean – China has played a massive role in backing the sport and restoring national pride, as part of a series of major infrastructure investments in the islands. What is behind this unlikely partnership?

From the legend of Sir Garfield Sobers (nicknamed “King Cricket”) and the swashbuckling style of Brian Lara, to the much-feared four-pronged West Indian pace attack of the 1970s and 1980s, cricket has long been the Caribbean’s most popular sport, uniting the region in its love of the game. The West Indies dominated international cricket for nearly two decades, winning the inaugural 1975 Cricket World Cup in England and defending the title in 1979, again in England.

But the glory days of West Indian cricket began to fade in the 1990s, as the professional era changed the sport for the Caribbean nations and territories of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago among others. No longer could these small island nations afford to compete with the likes of well-financed cricket powerhouses such as England, Australia, and India. Regional pride took a beating.

Enter the Dragon. Selected by the International Cricket Council as hosts of the 2007 Cricket World Cup, the West Indies were always going to struggle to meet to venue requirements of a modern-era competition. And yet, the impossible happened. Deadlines were met and the World Cup hosted, in no small part due to the donations and grants from the People’s Republic of China. Antigua and Barbuda’s Sir Vivian Richards Stadium and Grenada’s National Cricket Stadium – both official 2007 Cricket World Cup match venues – were funded by China, as was Jamaica’s Greenfield Stadium – a venue used for warm-up matches.

China’s knight-in-shining-armour rescue was no accident, but a carefully orchestrated example of stadium diplomacy. Of the 21 United Nations member states that recognize Taiwan – also known as the Republic of China (ROC) – as a nation independent from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), 11 are in the Central America-Caribbean region (the five Caribbean nations being the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the tiny island states of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines).

But since independence in the second half of the last century, even the smallest territories are included within the United Nations. And with membership comes important voting rights and influence.

The reason why these countries have aligned themselves with either Beijing or Taipei is simple: money, usually donated in the form of infrastructure construction or improvement. One only has to look at Antigua and Barbuda, a country that in 2013 began selling citizenship for economic contributions under its Citizenship by Investment Program, to see how such a struggling island nation can benefit from PRC patronage.

Having recognized the People’s Republic of China since 1983 – only two years after the island nation’s independence from the United Kingdom, Antigua and Barbuda was always going to be a prime candidate for benefaction. In addition to the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, Chinese aid projects in the islands include the Mount St. John Medical Centre, the new airport terminal at VC Bird International Airport, and a recently signed Memorandum of Agreement between the government of newly-elected prime minister Gaston Browne and Yida International Investment Antigua for a $750m casino resort.

“I promised the people that my administration would bring the type of investments to the country that will transform Antigua and Barbuda into an economic powerhouse and I am serious about that promise. This memorandum of agreement is the result of our determination to work in the interest of the people of the country,” Browne said at a press conference after the signing.

China-based Yida International has pledged to invest $200m a year for the next ten years in the islands, to build five 5-star hotels, 1300 residential units, a golf course, casino, marina and other projects.

China has made great attempts to secure the support of the Caribbean nations, giving some of these small islands a taste of power never experienced before and the confidence to try and play one side against the other in search of better deals. Saint Lucia maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan from 1984 to 1997 when they switched recognition to China, before returning to Taiwan’s side in 2007. China unsurprisingly withdrew diplomatic relations with Saint Lucia soon after.

However, such flip-flopping is not without its repercussions. Only last year Grenada escaped major reprimand for its 2004 switch of allegiances from Taipei to Beijing. Previously aligned with Taipei, Grenada jumped ship in 2004 after Hurricane Ivan decimated the country. The-then prime minister Keith Mitchell slipped into Beijing to negotiate a bigger aid package and turned his back on his former patrons.

In response, Taiwan’s Export-Import (EXIM) Bank tried to call in its loans via the US judicial system, winning its suit in 2007 and gaining access to any monies owed to the Grenadian government. This hit the island nation’s burgeoning tourism industry hard, with airlines and cruise operators required to pay said monies into an escrow account which would then go towards Grenada’s debt to Taipei.

Yet in 2012, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled Grenada able to collect such funds once more, with judge Harold Baer saying that the payments “are used as a source of revenue for carrying out public functions”. Lawyers for Taiwan’s EXIM Bank have said that they plan to appeal.

But why is China pouring money into these minor global players? What do they hope to get back in return? For some Caribbean countries, resources play something of a role – sugar from Jamaica, nickel from Cuba – but for others there appears to be little for China to gain. Some have accused China of buying influence and loyalty for future issues of contention, similar to Japan gaining support for its controversial whaling programmes from countries such as Kiribati, Tanzania, and Laos (a country that is landlocked) through donations and all-expenses paid trips for fisheries officials.

Annita Montoute, a lecturer at the University of West Indies’ Institute of International Relations in Trinidad and Tobago, believes that while the One-China Policy is still a matter of interest for China in the Caribbean, China’s current presence in the region is purely a way of extending its global influence and economic hegemony.

“Despite China’s claim that they do not want to dominate the world – they may be correct that they do not want to so in the traditional way (military power – the ‘hardest’ form of power) – but they are clearly seeking to do so in other areas,” Montoute says.

“They [China] have also now inserted themselves in regional financial institutions, an effective way of following closely important economic developments in the region. China is gradually being seen by the Caribbean as a substitute for aid and development assistance from traditional players such as the US and the EU. China is also very big on ‘soft power’; we see them using it in the cultural sphere – and they seem to be replicating what the EU did, partly, to become a dominant global power – the use of aid and development assistance.”

Another example of China’s soft power involves the offering of scholarships to Caribbean students. Knute James arrived in China from Antigua in 2007, one of ten students to come under his country’s initial scholarship programme.

“I was privileged to be in the first batch of Antiguan students the government sent to China to further studies in 2007, where I undertook a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Technology at the North China Electric Power University. My programme lasted a total of five years, from 2007-2012, with the first year being centred on learning the Chinese language,” James says.

“At that time, no one wanted to come this far, to a strange country we knew nothing about, to study, much less live, for such a long time. But now, more and more people are realizing that is it not impossible to do so, and the programme has seen an influx of new applicants, but still only a select few are recruited and sent to China each year.”

One criticism that China has faced is that its infrastructure investment projects often lack local involvement.

“The collective attitude of the Caribbean governments is very different from that of the ordinary citizen. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the Chinese model of investment. The main concerns are similar to those [China’s investments] in Africa – lack of technology transfer, very little local employment in Chinese projects, etc. This feeling has erupted in protests in Guyana and in Trinidad, winning sympathy from the locals,” says Montoute.

The situation regarding local involvement appears to be the same in Antigua, where only about 50 locals are thought to be working on the $80m airport terminal project.

“The Antiguan public is aware of the presence of the Chinese on the island, mainly regarding the construction of large scale projects. Back in the day, the public was not very fond of having non-nationals enter the country with the sole purpose of constructing buildings because it was regarded as depriving the locals of jobs, but it is getting better now that more local labour is being solicited,” Knute James says.

Despite concerns of influence-for-investment and a lack of local involvement, the fact remains that China is pumping money into countries that need it after former allies have turned their backs and withdrawn aid. It remains to be seen what China will ask for when the time comes, but for now, the Caribbean appears to content to watch the region progress.

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