Thursday, July 11, 2013

Caribbean Sunshine for China-Xi Jinping’s Historic Visit to Trinidad and Tobago

Just after Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa left China concluding a four day official visit in late last May, Chinese president Xi Jinping embarked on an official trip to the Americas. This would take him to four countries including Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States. But his first destination was the small Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

President Xi Jinping held talks with both Anthony Carmona, the president of Trinidad and Tobago and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the Prime Minister on June 1. Meanwhile, leaders of about eight other Caribbean nations arrived in Trinidad and Tobago to meet the Chinese president. They included several small island nations as well as Guyana and Suriname.

The president of the most populous country in the world chose to visit a geographically distant nation of just over 1.3 million people because of one crucial factor: Energy. Trinidad and Tobago is different from all other small Caribbean island nations due to its large deposits of oil and natural gas. It is considered to be an industrial country largely due to the industries based on fossil fuels.

Trinidad and Tobago, CIA World Factbook

China is a giant with a growing appetite of energy to sustain her industries. From 1993, when China became a net importer of petroleum, the need for energy has had a persistent effect on her foreign policy. China looked for new markets to acquire energy, sometimes even disregarding differences in political opinion. Meanwhile, she even went as far as escalating maritime boundary disputes with several East Asian and South East Asian countries for the control of regions with possible petroleum deposits.

As far as Trinidad and Tobago was concerned, China was a far away land, despite having diplomatic relations since the 1970s. The Caribbean nation was more close to the United States and Britain economically and politically. Meanwhile she is closer to India and Africa ethnically. But this was no reason for China to deter. She had entered contests of economic competition in a number of developing countries and ousted well entrenched rivals through her sheer weight of economic might. To paraphrase Don Vito Corleone, China made offers which these countries could not refuse.

There have been continuous discussions and speculations about the Chinese involvement in many African countries as well as some Asian countries. Meanwhile, Latin America and the Caribbean have also received increasing attention from the Chinese. In 2001, the then president Jiang Zemin paid a much celebrated tour of six Latin American nations. His successor Hu Jintao also visited the region several times. Therefore, the last fifteen years have seen a growing Chinese interest in the neighborhood of the United States. Little Trinidad and Tobago has also risen in importance for the Chinese. In the last six years, trade between the small island nation and the Asian giant has grown from US $ 174 million to US $ 450 million. China is increasingly asserting herself in the ‘backyard’ of the United States.

The Chinese rationale for the development of relationship in petroleum rich states away from the Middle East is sound. The Middle East is prone to political instability. The trade routes from there to China have two major choke points, the straits of Hormuz and Malacca. The Strait of Malacca was threatened by the activity of pirates just a few years ago. China remembers the earlier occasion when the access to Strait of Malacca was denied them five centuries ago. When the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, Chinese trade routes were jeopardized and China, which had a rich maritime history, retreated into a shell and slumbered. What was perhaps the most advanced civilization at the time started its long stagnation.

While the commodities traded are different today, the result will be the same if a resurgence of political instability or piracy interferes with the trade routes from Arabia to China. Without much needed energy, China will stagnate once again. This apprehension has driven them to find new petroleum resources in other regions and Latin America is one of them.

However, China has understood that trade is not the only tool in diplomacy. She has granted a loan to Trinidad and Tobago government to build a new children’s hospital. Meanwhile, a branch of the Confucian Institute would be opened with the aim of propagating Chinese culture in the island nation. With these acts of public diplomacy, China has made her intentions clear. She is there to stay. Do not be surprised if you see some Chinese cultural items in the famous carnival of Trinidad in a few years time.

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