Can China’s footprint in the Caribbean last?
Published: Oct 24, 2018 06:33 PM
I recently visited the Dominican Republic as part of a Chinese media delegation. In the Caribbean island country nearly 14,000 kilometers from China, the enthusiasm of locals to develop relations with China was palpable.

At a seminar on the Belt and Road initiative at the conference hall of the Dominican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eduardo Klinger, a professor at the Academy of Sciences of the Dominican Republic, envisaged connectivity of the Caribbean region during a PowerPoint presentation. It's not only his personal vision, but shows what Dominicans expect from the Belt and Road initiative.

The scholar who knows the condition of the region envisioned the possibility of greater connectivity among Caribbean island nations including the Dominican Public, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

He did not ignore the US. The Caribbean is the backyard of the US. The Bahamas is only a little over 200 kilometers from Miami.

"The connectivity in the Caribbean region certainly needs US support," Klinger said.

In his vision, Miami plays a pivotal role in facilitating regional connectivity and can benefit from it.

Klinger was full of excitement while talking about his idea, revealing the aspiration of the Caribbean countries for development by benefiting from China-US cooperation.

"Our country is small, but we are ambitious," he said.

We felt his passion in his desire for accelerating development of the country and the entire region.

The region needs development. In the Dominican Republic, we saw old roads with potholes and vast puddles of waters accumulated after rains. Internet speed is slow.

Several locals told us that Dominica needs to improve its transportation and communication network, rebuild ports and construct railways so as to play its role as a transportation hub in the Caribbean.

The policies of the Dominican government are also in sync with changes in political thought in Latin America. On the surface, right-wing politics is on the rise in Latin America while the left is in retreat across the region.

But from elections in some countries and governing policies adopted by some new governments, populism is rising. It seems economic plans in the future will cater more to ordinary voters, attach more importance to employment and better welfare. This gives China an opportunity to cooperate with countries in the region.

However, there are myriad difficulties ahead to improve connectivity in the region. It requires more railways, bridges, tunnels and ports, but more importantly, depends on the degree of mutual trust and cooperation between China and the US and how Washington positions China and the Caribbean countries in its strategy.

During his recent tour of Latin America, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned countries in the region to have their "eyes wide open" when dealing with Chinese investment. He accused China of engaging in "predatory economic activity" there.

Pompeo's remarks reflect increasing US anxiety over expanding Chinese influence in its backyard. But they will exert little influence.

Many Latin American countries have gained tangible benefits from their cooperation with China and more cooperation in the future is in line with the needs of governments and people in the region. 

Puerto Rico, which is considered a potential 51st state of the US and cannot establish diplomatic relations without the approval of the US Congress, is also interested in developing more cooperation with China.

Juan R. Melecio, head of Puerto Rico's Trade Office in the Dominican Republic, told us that despite divergences between China and the US, Puerto Rico hopes to strengthen cooperation with China in terms of people-to-people exchanges and tourism.

"This to some extent reflects the attitude of all Caribbean countries toward China," he said.

The US has defined China as the main strategic rival. This will certainly put obstacles in the path of Chinese enterprises to enter the Caribbean. But as long as we adhere to the principles of peaceful development and win-win cooperation, China will eventually gain a foothold in the region. 

The author is a senior editor with the People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina