Skip to main content

The Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly MP, has been on a mission to bolster ties between Britain and the Latin American and Caribbean region, visiting Jamaica, Colombia, Chile and Brazil. After meeting Jamaican Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, the Foreign Secretary stated that “the UK and Jamaica are fighting for a better future for both our great nations.”

The relationship between the Caribbean and Britain is rooted in a complex history. It has evolved from colonialism to cooperation within the Commonwealth. Currently, Jamaica is following in the footsteps of Barbados by aiming to become a Commonwealth Republic by 2025. Despite the move away from a monarchy, Cleverly must try and show that Britain still can have a positive presence in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.

The Caribbean is no longer a region dominated by Anglo-American influence; now, China has emerged as a significant player in the area. Several Caribbean countries, including Jamaica and Barbados, have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat MP has highlighted China’s use of infrastructure investment and debt diplomacy as a means of exercising control – a strategy now evident in the Caribbean.

Claims of Chinese neo-colonialism and exploitation are not unfounded. While Chinese loans have facilitated much-needed infrastructure repairs in the region, there are concealed realities that amount to exploitation. First, contracting arrangements have been structured to favour Chinese state-owned firms, placing Caribbean contractors at a disadvantage. This has led to the domination of the construction sector in Jamaica by Chinese firms, with up to 50% of the sector under their control

Second, as part of these arrangements, a significant portion of the equipment and manpower used in infrastructure projects must be sourced from China, exempt from import duties and quotas. This gives Chinese firms a cost advantage in developing infrastructure in Jamaica, while local firms still bear the burden of paying duties for imported machinery and equipment. Consequently, China enjoys an unfair advantage, leading to accusations from Jamaican trade unions of China having “near-monopolistic” control. Fundamentally, the conditions set forth in these arrangements create a cycle where the capital provided by Beijing for infrastructure projects ultimately revolves back to China, mirroring the exploitative capital accumulation seen in the past.

Another issue of concern is that of land concessions. In Sri Lanka, when the country failed to repay a loan for the Hambantota Port, China acquired a 99-year lease on the strategically significant port, raising fears of it becoming a Chinese naval facility in the future. Similar parallels can now be drawn to the situation in Jamaica, where, as repayment for a loan for a highway spanning the island, China acquired concessions on some lands in Mammee Bay in the parish of Saint Ann; concessions that exceed the value of the loan itself.

Lastly, China’s expanding economic presence in the Caribbean has had a detrimental impact on local workers. Unemployment levels in Jamaica have remained persistently high for over a decade, and China’s infrastructure loans have exacerbated the situation. Beijing imported over a thousand workers to develop the Jamaican highway, depriving Jamaicans in desperate need of work. Locals were left with only low-paid jobs, such as clean-up work. Even where work is provided, Chinese state-owned firms frequently disregard local health and safety regulations and labour standards.

Several nations see the supposed beneficial nature of no-policy-strings-attached Chinese loans. This, coupled with developing nations’ long-standing debt obligations, entices them to seek and accept loans from Beijing. However, this Trojan Horse hides China’s mercantile interests and the exploitation those involve.

In light of these concerns, James Cleverly MP must take bold and comprehensive action to ensure that the UK upholds liberal, international values and prevents Caribbean countries from falling under China’s illiberal and exploitative influence. Merely visiting capitals without substantive action is futile. Britain must establish a rival and positive economic presence in the region, offering truly beneficial loans for infrastructure development. The loan conditions should be kept to a minimum, as imposing policy prescriptions on loans, which are often met with disdain in developing nations, would only push these countries further into the arms of Beijing.

Considering that Britain does not possess similar capital resources as China, Westminster should exert pressure on multilateral lending institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank, to reduce policy prescriptions and lower the interest rates on loans to Caribbean nations. If the West fails to provide suitable loans and investments there, we may witness more and more governments succumbing to Beijing’s influence.

Britain stands in a prime position to rebuild relations with the Commonwealth. The first step is to prevent Commonwealth Caribbean countries from being exploited by China by offering mutually beneficial loans and investments. As questions linger about Britain’s future role in the world, it should strive to be a beacon of international liberalism, providing support to those in need, promoting and safeguarding democracy, and rebuilding global institutions that prioritise liberalism, democracy and development. To achieve this, it must counter China’s exploitative presence in the Caribbean.

Thomas Nurcome is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Andy Carne]