Latin America is driving faster on the path toward deeper involvement in and with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), this time with the Caribbean on board.
It all happened at the recent 2nd Ministerial Forum between China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) held in Santiago, the Chilean capital, on Jan- 23.
Held under the theme ‘Celac-China: Working for More Development, Innovation and Cooperation for Our Peoples’, the meeting brought together 31 of the 33 member-states of the group of continental and island states, big and small, to facilitate a joint approach to the BRI.
The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road were launched in 2013 with routes from China through Asia and linking to Europe and Africa. But Latin America soon indicated interest, as did several other regions.
Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Venezuela were among the first continental South American nations to indicate interest and many more joined in line at the Santiago meeting. But also hitting the road this year were Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, whose Foreign Affairs Ministers made clear their nations’ interests in following the same route.
‘Time is Ripe’
Jamaican Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith said Kingston welcomed the BRI as a ‘visionary plan’ that can mesh with national development plans for Caribbean states, saying the ‘time is ripe’ for multilateral cooperation as regional states focus on social and economic development plans.
She also noted the strong economic partnership between Jamaica and China, recalled construction by Chinese of a highway across the island that cut traveling time from north to south by more than half, called on China to offer grant funding for Climate Change initiatives in the region and gave notice that Jamaica was interested in attracting more Chinese investment, as well as becoming a logistics hub for BRI initiatives in the wider region.
Barbados’ Foreign Affairs Minister Maxine McClean made it clear that as far as Bridgetown was concerned, extension of the BRI to the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region is critical for all Celac member-states “as a whole”, while also promoting her island’s location within the Caribbean island chain as also being “excellent for a hub”, with significant potential too as “a bridge” in the wider sense.
Trinidad & Tobago’s Foreign Affairs Minister Denis Moses recalled Port of Spain’s participation in the BRI Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing last year, also saying the twin-island state was continuing discussions towards playing a greater role in the BRI, which it sees as positive and is in full support of.
A Welcome Opportunity
At a time when Latin America is hurting from the Trump administration’s downplaying of multilateralism in favor of unilaterally ‘making America great again’ by pulling out of international treaties and putting the future of even the North American Free Trade Area (Nafta) agreement in doubt, the South American countries have seen the BRI as a welcome opportunity to engage with China to build a new multilateral economic global modality.
The bigger continental states with more natural resources and greater possibilities of and for more meaningful involvement in the BRI are interested in how best it can be extended to the region, across the Pacific into the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea.
They want to enhance trade and infrastructural development through interconnectivity, involving everything from undersea fiber-optic cables to investment in infrastructural projects such as new ports and bi-oceanic routes, all aimed at reducing travel and transport time between China and the LAC region.
Encouraging Facts and Figures
The South American states are also encouraged by official figures indicating that trade between China and Latin America surpassed US$166 billion in the first eight months of 2017, an 18 percent increase over the same period in 2016.
Also attracting are indications from Beijing that in the next 15 years China expects to import US$24 trillion worth of goods and invest US$2 trillion from and in countries of the world, respectively, including Celac member-states.
Following last year’s 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Beijing also indicated that innovation will be the principal driving force for China’s development, with application of new technologies in the real economy, such as Internet, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.
China says it also plans to promote development of ecological industries to protect the environment, so the Latin American states interested in becoming big players in the BRI are also looking at and counting on intensifying exchanges in technical research, human resource training, environmental management and ecological security.
The ministers in Santiago welcomed a congratulatory letter from China’s President Xi jinping inviting them to participate in the BRI by forging a trans-Pacific path of cooperation linking China and the LAC region more closely.
By their declarations contained in the ‘Santiago Declaration’ at the end of the meeting, the Celac member-states have placed much emphasis on developing a trusted partnership with the Chinese, who have remained true to their promises to engage LAC states in ‘win-win’ projects that will also enhance the regional states’ participation in construction of a globalized economy based on multilateralism.
Naturally, there are concerns among competing private sector interests in Latin America, especially those that have been and are still deeply rooted in historical trading and business relationships with and in the USA.
There are also those other real factors that continue to inhibit the Latin American states from speaking together, with one voice.
But of the 21 Celac member-states that expressed support for the BRI in Santiago and indicated wishes to drive along the Silk Road route, there was no dissent regarding the need to elevate their relationships with China from bilateral to multilateral levels.
New Silk Road
The 1st Celac-China ministerial forum was held in Beijing in January 2015 and in the three years since much has happened to open a new Silk Road to Latin America – and now the Caribbean, as well.
The smaller Caribbean island-states that have indicated interest include Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, which have identified their own levels of involvement, never mind their size constraints.
All do have strong trade ties with China that can be mutually configured to fit into the wider BRI picture, especially through connectivity and transport, infrastructure and trade.
CELAC, founded in 2010 and launched in 2011, is a key regional grouping established to facilitate closer, deeper and stronger regional integration between its 33 member-states.
Unlike the Organization of American States (OAS), Celac does not include the USA and Canada, which factor has allowed the member-states to concentrate on taking actions and following courses more in keeping with their own image and likeness, without fear of ‘Big Stick’ backlashes from their powerful and punitive Northern neighbor that continues to pursue a ‘carrot and stick’ policy, only seeing and treating the region as ‘America’s backyard’.
The multilingual entity (with Spanish, Portuguese, French, English and Dutch as official languages) does speak a different language on the global stage than the OAS and other regional and hemispheric organizations.
Its original founders included Brazil’s Luis Ignacio ‘Lula’ Da Silva, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Argentina’s Christina Fernandez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correia, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Cuba’s Raul Castro, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Haiti’s Rene Preval, Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, the Dominican Republic’s Leonel Fernandez and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon.
Most are no longer at the helm in their respective countries, but the five Celac summits held since its establishment have all reiterated the fact that this hemispheric entity is as serious as ever about developing approaches to searching for solutions to the member-states’ problems that are very different from traditional approaches that are largely influenced by extra-regional considerations.
Unlike their North American and European partners, Celac member-states do not have to fear for imposition of factors dictated by China, which does not impose political demands for assistance – except respect for its One China Policy, which is well understood by Latin American and Caribbean states.
Proof of the Pudding
As with everywhere else, there are also those in the LAC region who invent reasons and excuses to accuse China of everything - from imperial ambitions to economic colonialism - even though the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in all of its 68 years, has no history of seeking new worlds to conquer.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and those countries that have developed ties with the PRC over time do have enough experiences to share with those now seeking to develop bilateral and multilateral ties to join the drive along the Silk Road, alongside those from Asia, Africa and Europe already speeding along the several routes opened-up by and through the BRI.