In his first address to the United Nations on the occasion of Barbados’ admission to the world body after gaining Independence from Britain on November 30, 1966, the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, our first prime minister, enunciated a policy position that subsequently became a guiding principle in this island’s pursuit of relationships with other countries. He made it clear that Barbados intended to be “friends of all and satellites of none.”
Barbados subsequently went on, not only to become a member of several other international organizations, but also to establish diplomatic relations with a host of countries in pursuit of its development interests. Next Tuesday, May 30, represents an important milestone as Barbados will observe the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The occasion comes against a backdrop of expanding bilateral cooperation in several areas, including education, health, investment and the military.
When the Tom Adams administration, with Sir Henry Forde as Minister of Foreign Affairs, took the historic decision back in 1977 to recognize Beijing as the legitimate government of China, it represented formal acceptance of what is known as the one China policy. Up to then, Barbados had had diplomatic relations with the rival Republic of China on Taiwan, as some countries in the Eastern Caribbean still do. It was a bold step as the world was then at the height of the Cold War, the struggle between the capitalist West and communist East, and it was not fashionable for regional countries to court the friendship of communist governments.
The situation of two governments claiming to be the legitimate representative of China has its genesis in the Chinese civil war which ended in 1949 when the Communists took power and the then Nationalist government fled from Beijing to Taiwan where it has operated ever since. In 1977, China was generally a poor country; today, it is an economic powerhouse providing stiff competition for the United States and other major western countries in trade, space technology and other areas. Growing wealth has also placed Beijing in a position to extend various forms of assistance to developing countries at a time when traditional sources of aid have almost dried up.
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Senator Maxine McClean, recently described the relationship between the two countries over the past four decades as vibrant and dynamic. She pointed to agreements between Bridgetown and Beijing for economic and technical cooperation in the areas of education and agriculture, as well as the recent signing of a protocol for military aid to Barbados. Of late, China has also supplied medical personnel — a team of doctors and nurses — who have been on attachment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Barbados has also been the recipient of generous Chinese financing at attractive interest rates for various projects like the current refurbishment of the Garfield Sobers gymnasium and the Sam Lord’s Castle rehabilitation. Through this avenue, the Chinese presence on the island has increased in recent years as construction labourers have come to work on some projects, drawing criticism from some persons who contend that Chinese aid is too heavily “tied” and, as such, is geared more to benefit China than Barbados.
Whether this is actually so, or just a mere perception, requires more analysis and debate. However, what is interesting is that similar concerns are also being raised in Africa where China’s profile has significantly increased in recent years. Earlier this year, Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi, India-based Centre for Policy Research, made the following insightful observation in an article entitled China’s Debt-trap diplomacy published by Project Syndicate.
He said: “If there is one thing at which China’s leaders truly excel, it is the use of economic tools to advance their country’s geostrategic interests. Through its $1 trillion “one belt, one road” initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence.”
“Of course, extending loans for infrastructure projects is not inherently bad. But the projects that China is supporting are often intended not to support the local economy, but to facilitate Chinese access to natural resources, or to open the market for its low-cost and shoddy export goods. In many cases, China even sends its own construction workers, minimizing the number of local jobs that are created.”
These are real concerns. While the 40th anniversary of Sino-Barbados relations is obvious reason to celebrate, it should also be a time for reflection. Are we in effect exchanging one hegemony for another and compromising rather than enhancing our independence? It is a question worth exploring, notwithstanding the expected diplomatic niceties.