THE COLD WAR IT IS NOT
When considering the state of great power relations within the Caribbean in 2017, it can sound familiar: Washington intent on maintaining its strategic influence and advantage in the Americas, and an Eastern nation led by a ruling Communist party intent on diminishing US influence locally.
While some parallels exist, ultimately China’s rise does not amount to another Cold War.
This is because at present the competition is not equal, and it is unclear if it ever will be. Make no mistake, China is indeed a rising power in global affairs. It is also projected to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy – in fact by some measures it already has – and, as it grows more powerful, a greater assertiveness in the foreign policy arena can be expected.
But a powerful economy doesn’t necessarily translate into power elsewhere, and vice versa. Japan and Germany may be among the world’s biggest economies but their ‘hard power’ in foreign policy power is limited. Similarly, while the British and French economies may trail their Japanese and German counterparts, each holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (in tandem with a nuclear capability) that ensures each ranks in the first order as a diplomatic power.
As with other regions of the world, Washington seeks to sell the (relative) peace and stability the world has seen under its leadership since the end of the Cold War, and its commitment to a Rules-Based Global Order. In turn, though the US hasn’t always perfectly applied this, its support of democracy and human rights remains an important aspect of its leadership.
The Communist Party of China, by contrast, seeks to offer economic incentives, and a ‘you need not choose’ narrative.
As opposed to the US government’s need to link economic agreements to political freedoms, the CPC readily trades with nations whether they’re democratic, authoritarian or otherwise.
While there is economic competition here, the absence of a strong military component illustrates that this is not Cold War 2.
It is in Asia that the signs of the CPC’s potential ambitions have been most visible. A deeper look behind the scenes of the CPC’s motivations make this a more complex picture.
In an era when many Chinese citizens are increasingly affluent, engaged in the global economy, and have travelled overseas, many Chinese no longer accept the old CPC narrative that greater political freedoms are a danger to Chinese society. The odds are strong that President Xi Jinping knows this himself on an intuitive level, with his daughter being a graduate of Harvard University.
This notwithstanding, the painful events that the Chinese people endured at the hands of foreign powers before the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949 means many do remain wary of change. Xi and the CPC recognise that their capacity to retain power will depend on keeping the Chinese people fearful of change, and fearful of foreign influence.
This helps explain, in part, China’s incursions in the South China Sea. While the CPC’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea is linked to an historic territorial claim that China has to the waters, it’s also good politics for the CPC.
The United States and numerous Asian nations signified that they would not recognise China’s new claim and, instead, undertake freedom of navigation exercises. To these nations, these exercises are about sending a message that they intend the South China Sea to remain international waters. For the CPC, this dispute has given it a great new piece of fodder for the nightly news about how yang guiz AKA ‘Western devils’ are once again seeking to seize China’s territory.
Ultimately, while Beijing has despatched warships to shadow the US navy and vessels from other nations, so far it has not shown the readiness to assert its claim in the same way it did over Hong Kong, or even the Senkaku Islands, presently disputed with Japan.
For now, the South China Sea remains a testing ground for the CPC in its ambitions in Asia. It also remains good politics domestically and, for a Xi-led CPC that knows all of its future ambitions depend on China’s economy continuing to grow, that is enough for the party.
While China may ultimately seek to challenge the US leadership in Asia at some point in the future, right now it recognises it is simply unable to do so. What’s more, the ongoing theatrics of Kim Jong Un in North Korea, alongside the increase of military capability in Japan, India, Australia and other countries, affirm it is certainly not the right time for the CPC to challenge. And the CPC knows it.
There is one issue, however, that is the exception to this rule; a strategic tinderbox for Asia that remains a global flashpoint, and one with particularly unique implications for the Caribbean region: the question of Taiwanese sovereignty.
As opposed to being an outlier, it is within the Caribbean that the ultimate future of Taiwan as the Republic of China, and as a recognised government separate from CPC rule, could be decided.
At the time of writing, 20 nations maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, recognising it as the rightful government of China. A sizeable number of these nations reside in the Caribbean and Central America: Belize, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haití, Honduras, Nicaragua, Saint Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines. The CPC maintains that there can be only one China, and any nation that officially recognises Taipei will not enjoy the benefits of a relationship with China.
In 1969 Taiwan had full relations with 67 countries. In 1970, when China’s GDP trailed that of Iceland and Luxembourg, economic exclusion of the CPC was more manageable. Today, to not have access to China’s market is to miss out on its booming economic growth, in a nation of 1.3 billion that between 1989 and 2017 averaged 9.69 percent growth.
The power of this bargaining chip is something that the CPC recognises, and looks to leverage in the region accordingly. Previous years have seen something of a back and forth: our own Saint Lucia switched recognition from the ROC to the CPC in 1997 and then back to the ROC in 2007- in so doing, aggrieving the CPC and delighting Taiwan.
Beyond the merits of each government’s argument, chequebook diplomacy is a factor. It was held to be so in Panama’s switch this year, recognizing the CPC and cutting formal ties with the ROC. It’s also likely to be a factor in the future as our neighbouring nations of Nicaragua and Paraguay, as well as Saint Lucia, are again highlighted as candidates to switch from the ROC to CPC.
Chequebook diplomacy and Caribbean Values While chequebook diplomacy does play a role here, the unique history of Caribbean nations, and our region as a whole, also play a factor. Further, it is something that has evolved over time.
The economic advantages of a relationship with the CPC over the ROC have long been made clear. Yet, the ROC cause is one with which many people of the Caribbean identify. The story of a smaller nation seeking to win independence from a larger power, and resentful of hearing it’s not really a nation at all but instead just a rogue territory that should know its place, is one that resonates here.
The face of the Caribbean today also looks remarkably different from 1949 when Mao first came to power in China. Not only have many Caribbean nations won their independence, they have demonstrated their commitment to democracy and human rights; also a total unwillingness to be pushed around by a larger foreign power, whether from Europe, North America or, now, Asia.
Even though the CPC’s growth far outpaces Taiwan’s, this factor is a cultural consideration. If the CPC truly aspires to a peaceful rise on the global stage, Caribbean governments will work with it, in mutual self-interest, and also in the knowledge that economic growth by itself can alleviate many social ills such as poverty.
But regional nations will not accept domination or derision. Any efforts by the CPC to not only diminish Taiwan’s influence in the region, but any little nation’s voice in the face of great power politics, would not be well-received.
As the status quo is maintained, the Caribbean, as much as Asia, will remain at the epicentre of the ROC and CPC’s rivalry in 2018. In doing so, this region now looks upon a relationship with Washington and Europe that inverts the historical power balance.
As the decisions of nations like Saint Lucia and Nicaragua to stay with Taipei or switch to Beijing could have a substantial influence on Taiwan’s global influence as a whole, the nations of the Caribbean could have a potentially decisive say on this issue; and, in so doing, provide the world with a decisive illustration of how regional nations can capably and effectively work towards economic advancement, while also ensuring political freedoms and human rights are observed.
Given that our people have a rich history of pursuing and defending their own independence, whatever the decisions ultimately made in time ahead, it’s undoubted that the voices of our region will be heard and listened to with interest across the world. The capacity of the Caribbean to contribute meaningfully here is something to which everyone in the Caribbean family could speak.