April 09, 2012

This Weekend’s News: China’s Caribbean Interests

The New York Times reported yesterday that China is increasing its economic ties with the Caribbean, raising concerns among some U.S. diplomats and others that Beijing may be encroaching in a region of the world where Washington’s influence has waned in recent years. “Most analysts do not see a security threat, noting that the Chinese are not building bases or forging any military ties that could invoke fears of another Cuban missile crisis,” the report stated. “But they do see an emerging superpower securing economic inroads and political support from a bloc of developing countries with anemic budgets that once counted almost exclusively on the United States, Canada and Europe.”

Unlike in Africa and South America where Beijing’s activities have focused largely on securing access to raw materials like fisheries and minerals needed to sustain China’s strong economic growth, Beijing’s “presence in the Caribbean derives mainly from long-term economic ventures, like tourism and loans, and potential new allies that are inexpensive to win over, analysts say.” China has also taken steps to position itself as a credible international partner in support of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in a region of the world prone to catastrophic hurricanes and other destabilizing events. In the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, China deployed search-and-rescue personnel, medical teams, seismological experts and tons of emergency supplies.

Yet China’s interests in building new allies in the Caribbean could also be indirectly linked with its interests in some of the region’s natural resources. In particular, China has eyed potential offshore oil and natural gas reserves along Cuba’s coast. In January, a Chinese-built drilling rig arrived off Cuba’s coast to begin exploring for oil and natural gas. Meanwhile, Cuba has been in negotiations with Chinese companies to lease major blocs of its coastal waters for energy exploration. China’s efforts to build goodwill in the Caribbean may be indirectly linked with its efforts to secure access to oil and natural gas wealth in other parts of the region.

This will be an interesting region of the world to watch in the months and years ahead. As an interesting observation, the U.S. presence in the South China Sea has raised somewhat similar concerns among officials in Beijing, an area of the world that, according to my colleague Robert D. Kaplan, Beijing views as “China’s Caribbean.” It seems only fitting then – if not ironic – that China is now raising concerns in the Caribbean itself.