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The Caribbean’s Asia Pivot: A Hedge against US Decline

By: Contributor - Sep 11, 2014, 1:08 pm

By Michael Edghill

EspañolThere has been quite a bit of attention paid to the Obama Administration’s so-called Asia Pivot in the last few years, as pundits and theorists try to decide what it means for the future of international relations. US foreign policy has been as invested in developing relations with the nations of the Asia/Pacific region as ever, in a thinly veiled attempt to balance the ever-expanding, and somewhat oppressive, influence of China. With more attention being focused on Asia, many were curious whether or not the United States would become more disengaged elsewhere.

The question for many policy wonks who concern themselves with Latin America and the Caribbean seemed to be how this region could be ignored any more than it already was. However, without causing a stir, the Caribbean started to make its own pivot towards Asia, away from an almost imperial reliance on the Western Hemisphere. The various states of the Caribbean have been actively pursuing trade and investment agreements with China with substantial success.

China has reciprocated the interest. Since assuming the Office of the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping has personally met with the prime ministers of Jamaica and of Trinidad & Tobago. In July, he also announced the establishment of a Forum of China and CELAC.

Numerous Caribbean nations have been so eager to build a good rapport with the Chinese that they have made diplomatic concessions to curry favor. These actions have not gone unrewarded; the Chinese government granted US$3 billion in 2013 to Caribbean Community (Caricom) states that support the One China Policy, which refuses to accept an independent Taiwan.

The promotion of investment, trade agreements, and closer diplomatic relations are enough by themselves to make observers pay attention to a changing relationship between the Caribbean region and China. And this says nothing of the Chinese investments in Cuba and the planned canal through Nicaragua.

These actions taken together may reflect a Caribbean region simply pursuing improvement in their economic fortunes, or a true shift in regional focus away from traditional Western economies and towards the growing Asian, specifically Chinese, economic anchor. That question is best considered in light of the recently published “Caricom Strategic Plan for 2015-2019.” Its introduction contains the Caribbean view of where they find themselves in the global context.

The executive report expresses concerns over how Caricom states will respond to the supranational agreements that are “transforming the face of traditional regional integration processes” such as the Trans Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. It also notes economies struggling to rebound from the global economic crisis and the expectation of rising interest rates, as important considerations for growth in the region.

Tucked into this introduction is a phrase that, in the context of actions in prior years, reveals the motivation behind all the trade agreements, investment, and diplomatic maneuvering:

Amidst an increasingly volatile and unpredictable world economy, a redistribution in the balance of global economic power is becoming apparent, with China likely to become the leading world economy in the coming years, followed by the United States and the major emerging developing economies – India, Brazil, Mexico, and Indonesia.

With that stated, it is apparent that Caribbean officials are hedging their bets and shifting their economic and diplomatic focus towards China (perhaps even India and Indonesia) in anticipation of the global power shift they see coming. Not only is the shift away from the United States, but Europe is not even mentioned as a part of the future for trade and investment with Caricom. To make the point even clearer, just two pages later, one reads: “traditional partners in the industrialized world are unlikely to provide the growth push as in the past.”

Without making a judgement on whether their calculation is wise or foolish, evidence suggests that the Caribbean is in the midst of its own Asia Pivot. What that means for traditional trading partners and for the future of US-Caribbean and European-Caribbean diplomatic relations remains to be seen. Perhaps the United States and Europe have pivoted too far away from their historic trade and diplomatic relations with Latin America and the Caribbean and towards Asia — thus leaving a vacuum of global hegemonic influence that was destined to be filled.

Regardless, it is worth paying attention to, as the dynamics of international relations remain very fluid between these traditional “partners.”

Based in Fort Worth, Texas, Michael Edghill teaches courses on US Government and Latin America and the Caribbean. He is a regular contributor with the Caribbean Journal. Follow @MichaelWEdghill.