China’s rising influence around the world has been a subject of concern, particularly for the United States, who continue to fear China’s spreading power over different regions around the world. China’s extensive presence on the continent of Africa is proof of this but in recent years their neocolonialism has slowly made its way to the Caribbean, specifically in Jamaica. Neocolonialism refers to the use of economic and cultural forces in order to exert control over an independent country that used to be a colony. The “neo” in neocolonialism is key due to the fact that it highlights that even in a post-colonial world there are still processes in place that perpetuate these older colonial systems. Unfortunately, in our world, older does not equate to defunct but rather, colonialism has managed to remodel itself into a different form which is extremely insidious and subtle. Instead of using methods like imposing direct military control, neocolonialism utilizes economics as its main source of power. In Jamaica, it is paramount that they try to find a secure balance while being in the midst of a great power struggle between the United States and China.
Belt and Road Initiative
In 2019, Jamaica joined China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is a focal point of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy. It’s a massive global undertaking which pledges investments aimed at developing infrastructure in countries around the world. The BRI has many Western opponents, with countries like the United States, Australia, and Japan forming a counter project which has a similar global infrastructure strategy called the Blue Dot Network. One of the main criticisms of the Belt and Road Initiative is its direct path to “debt-trap diplomacy”. It’s a recently coined term that has been fervently denied by the Chinese but refers to a powerful country purposefully seeking to entrap a borrowing country in debt so they can exert their will over them. It goes hand-in-hand with neocolonialism and unfortunately some critics have claimed that this phenomenon has been seen in major institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.
Despite Western hesitance, Jamaica’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Kamina Johnson Smith, was a strong proponent for the BRI and believed it to be the perfect step forward for Jamaica. “Such connectivity and the potential it holds can serve as a catalyst for bringing Jamaica closer to [the] attainment of our economic growth and sustainable development goals,” Johnson Smith observed. Jamaica was the tenth country in the Caribbean to join the Belt and Road Initiative following the likes of Trinidad, Suriname, Guyana, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. The amount of Caribbean countries who are signing on to the BRI is a worrying trend for the United States, in large part due to the proximity of the Caribbean to the US. The strategic location of many Caribbean countries seems to be one of the major reasons why China has chosen to invest in the region. Frankly, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the Cold War of the 20th century and the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. In response to encroachment by the USSR in the Caribbean (which was extremely geopolitically important even then), President Ronald Reagan and his administration launched the Caribbean Basin Initiative in 1983 which opened up US markets to Caribbean markets and provided several trade benefits. It was deemed successful and stimulated the economy of many Caribbean countries. The Hill states that “with an average annual GDP growth of 4 percent per year, development in the Caribbean has significantly outpaced the rest of Latin America since 2002.” Now, nearly 40 years later, China aims to do what the United States managed to accomplish in the 1980’s.
Jamaica at the Center
Jamaica has received more loans from the Chinese government than any other Caribbean nation. Since 2005, the amount has amassed to about $2.1 billion dollars. Jamaica has also received direct investments from China which has accrued more than $3 million into bauxite mining projects and sugar production. Perhaps in a bid to avoid “debt-trap diplomacy” Jamaica has announced that it would stop negotiating new loans from China but that doesn’t mean they’ll end their relationship with them.
This decision to hold on borrowing from China is novel to many countries China has been funneling money into. According to Jevon Minto, a China-Latin American scholar from The Inter American Dialogue, many African countries should follow in their footsteps. The primary motivation for the Jamaican government to freeze on borrowing is so that they can reduce the level of debt the government owes China. It appears to be largely strategic and places Jamaica at the forefront. Unwilling to be threatened by warnings from Washington about Chinese influence, the Jamaican government has made it clear they know exactly what they are doing and the relationships they are intentionally cultivating. After all, the decision to hold on to any new loans was announced in conjunction with several bilateral agreements made between Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang. This signifies that this new Jamaican approach is not made because of any malice or repudiation towards the Chinese but rather an interest in changing the nature of the relationship into something more progressive. Minto states that, “Instead of borrowing new loans every year, the government is working with Chinese policy banks to fund multi-year infrastructure projects.” It’s remarkable how much of a consensus there is within the Jamaican government about developing relations with China and not succumbing to the wishes of the United States. High-ranking officials like PM Holness, the aforementioned Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Kamina Johnson Smith and the Jamaican Labour Party as a whole are all in agreement about exercising the sovereignty they have. Even Jamaica’s former ambassador to the US, Richard Bernal, said he is cautiously optimistic about Jamaica’s involvement with the Belt and Road Initiative. Jevan Minto said it best, “When you’re a middle-income country like Jamaica, with so many domestic challenges yet you are not getting access to concessional finances, at 2-3% interest rates as provided by Chinese banks, you find that Washington warnings are scoffed at.”
China is also employing “mask diplomacy” which refers to personal protective equipment (PPE) that China has sent to many countries around the world, especially during the onset of the pandemic when obtaining PPE was extremely difficult. In July 2020, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi pledged to extend $1 billion in vaccines to both the Caribbean and Latin America. Whether this was an act of goodwill on the part of China or another attempt to extend their influence, there is no denying that many will be aided by this.
The current Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, leader of the Jamaica Labour party, managed to establish a strategic framework for an economic partnership with China during a nine day visit in Beijing and Shanghai in November 2019. Here, we can observe how Jamaica is working to reverse the trend of overexploited countries being taken advantage of. Through these meetings, PM Holness was able to lay the groundwork for educational support from China in technology training and building a school’s infrastructure. Also, climate action was another important item on the agenda. China sharing their technology on renewable energy, water security, and environmental management systems would largely help Jamaica advance in the technological realm and establish themselves as political actors within their own right. There have been some criticisms, primarily from local Jamaicans, on how this partnership is playing out. Even with the new construction of highways, most of them remain largely empty. The North South highway was constructed in 2016 and was one of the first major projects completed in Jamaica by a Chinese state-owned company. With the highway comes a pricey toll which makes it extremely inconvenient for daily use. Another problem that has been brought up is the loss of job opportunities for those in industries on the small island nation. Many of the construction projects that have been funded by the Chinese employ a limited number of residents which has been a significant hit against many Jamaican construction industries who have been suffering against the new competition. “The Chinese do not engage Jamaican engineers and Jamaican management on the construction job, they only engage labour,” said Carvel Stewart, a civil engineer and former president of the Incorporated Masterbuilders Association of Jamaica. One of the main selling points of aid from China was the supposed boost to the economy. And yet, many locals are complaining about their sharp decrease in profits and jobs which runs counter to what was supposed to be prosperity and more wealth.
If China has a presence in the entire Caribbean, then why is there a focus on Jamaica? There are a couple of reasons. Part of the motivation behind the BRI is China’s need for natural resources. Bauxite is a sedimentary rock that is common in tropical regions. It is the world’s main source of aluminum and bauxite mining happens to be the second largest industry in Jamaica. The hunt for natural resources isn’t a new thing and is commonly associated with colonialism and exploitation. A previously closed mining facility for bauxite had been closed in Jamaica since 2009 but was purchased in 2016 by the Chinese state-owned Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO). Along with it came environmental concerns from locals because dust from bauxite mining can poison drinking water and cause damage to internal organs. JISCO eventually chose to close the mines but they plan to only do so for two years which is quite concerning. Former ambassador to the US, Richard Bernal made sure to highlight that “the residue from bauxite plants have been here since they were established 50 years ago by Canadians and American firms.” Unfortunately, this is yet another harmful colonial legacy.
Location is another important factor in China’s close ties with Jamaica. Not only is Jamaica in close proximity to the United States but it is not too far off from the Panama Canal. The Canal’s shipping importance is extremely key for trade in both the Americas and Asia. Being able to have a base close to such a significant route is highly strategic and China has already attempted to establish a presence. There were originally plans to build a port off of Goat Island (which is off the coast of Jamaica and directly above Panama) where state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company would have led the project. However, building the port would have meant that the island would have to be both levelled and dredged, leaving residents more vulnerable to hurricanes which can be quite destructive in the area. The project was eventually cancelled after mobilization and research from the Conservation Strategy Fund was submitted to the Jamaican government. Let’s hope that the decision sticks.
The relationship between Jamaica and China is a delicate situation because on the one hand you have a country that wants to advance and cement themselves on equal footing with other nations in the world. This is hard to do without aid of some type, and most developed nations in this world would not have flourished without help. The Marshall Plan was a US effort to grant billions of dollars of aid to Western Europe in the disastrous aftermath of WWII and it was immensely successful in building up their economy. If the US is unwilling to do that for Caribbean nations, namely Jamaica, where else are they to turn if they require a boost but China? A country that is projected to become the largest economy in the world. On the other hand however, neocolonialism is just as serious a problem as its predecessor. Just because it evades harsher tactics used in centuries preceding it, does not mean it carries less harm. Trying to slyly entrap former colonies under rule by way of economic means is a harsh cycle that will continue to allow for the subjugation and quelling of their own national agendas. This is not to single out the Chinese and paint them as the villain, but rather meant to highlight that this is the same formula with different actors. How many times throughout history have we seen powerful states using any means necessary to quash the opposition in order to stay on top? My primary concern is the locals who reside on such a diverse and rich land and who are in danger of becoming game pieces on the chessboard of great power competition. My hope is that Jamaica and other countries in the Caribbean continue to make choices that are best for them and cultivate the right relationships that will bring them success and security.