From Beijing to Vieux Fort
Over the past decade China has become an increasingly important source of investment for the Caribbean— both in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) and also for favorable debt financing schemes extended by Chinese state-owned banks. Hardly a newcomer to the scene, Beijing’s foray into the Caribbean was spurred by its battle of monetary diplomacy against the Republic of China (Taiwan). Recent data, however, suggests that China’s motivations in the region go beyond its infamous One China Policy.
Despite agreeing to suspend the practice of check- book diplomacy, data shows that the practice is still alive and well, evidenced by the massive 500% increase in Chinese FDI between the years 2003 and 2011. Of that 500%, virtually all of it took place along three categories: natural resources, raw materials and large-scale infrastructure.
Bauxite in Jamaica; timber and minerals in Guyana; and gas and asphalt in Trinidad. Through a simple survey of China’s investment portfolio in the region - motorways in the Bahamas, conference centers and theatres in Barbados, airport construction in Antigua, major road development in Dominica, and a seemingly endless pipeline of national stadiums - it becomes glaringly obvious that Chinese FDI follows a dual investment thesis: natural resource extraction and/ or the exportation of Chinese labor to willing countries.
Exemplifying the pressures that the uninhibited importation of Chinese labor exerts on local markets, we need look no further than Suriname. China Dalian International - a Chinese state-owned construction conglomerate - was awarded a series of infrastructure contracts to upgrade the roads in and around Paramaribo. Laborers from CDI resided in what were supposed to be temporary, makeshift camps along the rainforest, however, more than a year later, many of these camps are still there, eerily reminiscent of a refugee camp. According to a U.S. Embassy diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks: “Large groups of Chinese enter the country via the western border with Guyana and receive driver’s licenses, official documents and employment upon arrival through semi-legal or illegal channels. Unable to pay debts, they are de facto indentured labor, bonded to the organizations that brought them to Suriname.” Stories such as these are not isolated, as a very similar dynamic occurred during the country’s recent gold rush. A 2012 investigation into Suriname’s feverish gold mining industry conducted by The Pulitzer Center concluded: “the gold fields of Bensdorp are carved right out of the virgin rainforest in valley floors. The miners inch their way up the valleys destroying entire watersheds by scraping every organic substance away to get at the gold in the layers below. The Surinamese have either been pushed out or are noshows to this great unfolding drama to control--and possibly destroy-- the interior of their country.”
Although Suriname is the most discussed example of Chinese labor dumping, it’s hardly the only one; the Baha Mar project in Bahamas is another notorious example.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China’s top trading partners in CARICOM are: Antigua and Barbuda, followed by Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Dominica. Although trade is extremely prevalent in these countries, it is absolutely onesided. In 2008, for example, 93% of CARICOM-China trade came in the form of Chinese exports to the region. In the last decade alone, Chinese exports consistently accounted for over 70% of trade to the region.
These severe economic imbalances should be a major concern for Caribbean leaders. As long as China continues to monopolize the region’s commodity markets while simultaneously undermining local labor markets, its foreign policy tentacles will inevitably burrow deeper and deeper into domestic affairs—threatening the self-determination of nearly 40 million people.
Bensdorp, Suriname is also a boomtown. The preferred currency is gold, mined locally and carried in pouches hidden in one’s clothes. Euros are the favored hard currency because of the proximity of Euro zone across the river, followed by the U.S. dollar and finally, begrudgingly, the humble national currency, the Suriname dollar.