Chinese President Xi Jinping with Latin American and Caribbean leadersJuly 2014: Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit with Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Brasilia, Brazil. [photo: Xinhua/Li Xueren via Alamy]

[This is an excerpt from an article in THe Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]


At the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that concluded in October 2022, General Secretary and President Xi Jinping stated that China would experience ‘high winds, choppy waters, even dangerous storms’ under his next 10-year tenure. The current de facto global interconnected system of regions, particularly in small (and micro) states and small island developing states (SIDS), has given rise to a coordination problem, surfacing in an era of multifaceted interdependence with China seeking to play a much more significant role globally and within the Caribbean. While the Caribbean is still Occidentalised in many respects, such as its parochial schooling structure (a remnant of colonisation), its political and geostrategic record is now tipping towards greater Orientalisation. Geostrategic rebalancing is occurring as the new scramble for influence in the Caribbean begins. This began first in 2004, when Cuba and Venezuela created the 10-member ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para Los Pueblos de Nuestra América) grouping, followed by the US beginning to ‘pivot’ towards Asia as it joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2008. Continued economic interests in the Caribbean have mostly centred around oil futures. In 2013, the PetroCaribe oil alliance was created by Venezuela to facilitate deeper partnerships with ALBA’s members by providing a payment system for members to buy oil at market prices and focusing on promoting economic cooperation among its 18 members. While Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro did ease U.S-Cuba relations after fifty years, the Trump administration, in pursuing an isolationist policy of ‘America First’, had pushed the Caribbean further away into China’s economic arms and influence. While this rebalancing was occurring regionally, China’s influence in the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) multiplied as it began to dole out substantial monetary aid to member states to influence their social structures. Collectively, these events paved the way for the shifting of Caribbean hegemony.

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China’s emergence as a competing superpower has led to a multifaceted approach to redefining its global partnerships in the Caribbean basin’s small, yet open economies. China, the world’s second-largest economy, requires access to resources to fuel its economic transition from product manufacturing to a service based and innovation economy. Some 97 countries are under China’s debt, and those with the highest external debt to China are, at the end of 2020, Pakistan ($77.3 billion), Angola ($36.3 billion), Ethiopia ($7.9 billion), Kenya ($7.4 billion), and Sri Lanka ($6.8 billion). Infrastructure development in emerging economies is one way to guarantee trade partners and, thus, access to strategic resources, such as education.

The study of Sino-Caribbean relations has historically focused on ‘aid development’, ‘trade development’, ‘trade competition’, and ‘maturation of China-Caribbean relations’ (Bernal, Citation2010). Of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and, more recently, South Africa) economies, China and India are the most prominent investors in CARICOM members’ economies. For example, between 2005 and 2020, China invested over $8 billion in five CARICOM countries and Cuba, excluding numerous grants, scholarships, and low-interest loans. While China couches its aid in the Caribbean as South-South technical/knowledge transfer and cooperation, one cannot help but recognise that its main investment projects are infrastructure: an example of ‘debt diplomacy’ (Green, Citation2019) or ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ (Carmody, Citation2020) linked to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This includes building a cricket stadium in Grenada, funding a casino and resort in the Bahamas, and acquiring Jamaica’s largest container port, to name a few. Unlike previous aid lending programmes undertaken by traditional colonial donor nations belonging to the Paris Club, today’s debt diplomacy targets developing countries’ resources, mineral deposits, port access rights, and other infrastructural works. Countries in debt to China and unable to repay loans and accumulated interests often end up signing over resources and strategic assets to China. While this has not happened yet in the Caribbean, its potential looms.

In what follows, we argue that China is using soft diplomacy in the form of Southern cooperation to influence and reshape the ‘Caribbean Educational Policy Space’ (CEPS) (Jules, Citation2012; Citation2013) that is premised upon constructing the Ideal Caribbean Person to function within the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME). CEPS is a borderless educational space that is discursively framed by the era of ideological pluralism, legally by the 2001 Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, substantively by the enactment of the Caribbean Single Market in 2006, and functionally through functional cooperation – a non-economic process. This article argues, first, the core theories (neo-functionalism and inter-governmentalism) that have more recently been used to describe Caribbean economic integration are inadequate to deal with ‘trans-regional cooperation or trans-regionalism’ (Bernal, Citation2010), given China’s growing presence across the Caribbean. Second, it suggests that there needs to be a paradigmatic shift in how CARICOM’s integrative mechanism is studied in relation to ‘existential threats’ (Girvan, Citation2010), given how China is attempting to integrate itself into such mechanisms, essentially strong-arming states into foreign policy stances such as delegitimising Taiwan. It suggests that the existence of an already entrenched Caribbean space – the CEPS – hinders China’s ability to disrupt the Caribbean. As an example, it examines the regional Ideal Caribbean Person project, which succeeds in establishing a cultural hegemony within education that China has yet to interrupt. However, this paper argues that, in reality, transfer of technical know-how, particularly in health, education, and transportation activities, does not occur. It concludes by implying that, instead of individual bilateral relations with states, a common multilateral China-CARICOM policy is preferable, both for China and CARICOM.

Tavis D. Jules is an Associate Professor of Cultural & Educational Policy Studies and Higher Education, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Richard Arnold is a Researcher at Cultural & Educational Policy Studies and Higher Education, Loyola University, Chicago and Abigail Smith is based at the American University of Sharjah, Sharjah UAE.