Friday, February 23, 2018

Mission India

If this mission were anything like its famous movie namesake, full of explosions and high-speed chases, it would have elicited more public reaction and interest. Instead the usual crowd has come out to berate, blindly follow or misconstrue another diplomatic mission undertaken by the current regime. The future of many small and vulnerable economies (SVEs) in the international system is very much dependent on their ability to meet the challenges of the system and to enlist the help and protection of the larger players. In this cut-throat world of international trade and economic markets, the economic diplomacy of SVEs such as Trinidad and Tobago is vital for success.

Admittedly economic diplomacy, international agreements and missions do not make for stimulating reading or topics of discussion. They are usually the preserve of technocrats who are caught up with numbers and theories and do not offer much fodder for our scandal-obsessed nation. The ultimate fate of our nation, our economic advancement and the legacy to our future generations does not seem to be high on the minds of the politicking public. The success of SVEs in today's world is extremely dependent on its ability to cope in the system and build a network of allies.

It used to be that we were in close cahoots with the developed nations of the north, including the US, our former colonial master, England, and the European Union in general. When these northern states were the power-brokers in the system we used to cosy up to them, to our great benefit. We were among the first nations to enter the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995. On the world stage we have been the friend of the great powers and we have been able to get good deals out of many trade agreements. At the WTO we are part of a larger group of countries, including African and Pacific states, called the ACP, where under numerous classifications we have been afforded special treatment.

The emergence of the developing superpowers the so-called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) coupled with the global economic and financial crises have fundamentally reordered the international system in many ways.

The former great powers are still very much powerful and wealthy, but their primacy in economics and market power is being challenged by the emerging giants. These developing powers are sources of great opportunity but also great risk to us, and it is essential we play a good game. It has been becoming clear in recent months that the current regime is embarking on a mission to couple with these emerging powers. Agreements with Brazil and China, and now even deeper ties with India, are being signed. The terms of these agreements are what is important. The current regime must be very careful to employ a good economic strategy that balances our interest as a nation of 1.3 million people against nations that have over a billion people, at the same time maintaining our established relationships.

The economic strategy of China toward developing countries has set off alarm bells all over the world, as that nation has been engaging in policies that strip nations bare of their resources and do little for long-term development. China has also been aggressive in buying local firms and businesses all over the world. Labour practices on its construction sites have also been questioned, with allegations of pseudo-slavery.

On the other hand, it is the great dragon of the east, with a billion-plus people and an economy that is booming. Good relations with China will serve us well. Trade relations however do not only mean cheap Chinese but also technology exchange. China has made great strides in farming, environmental management and medicine. The same goes for India. We should not simply be a market for India. We should be deriving tangible benefits from our connections.

Our local manufacturing cannot compete with India, but our highly educated work force and our advantage in finance and services should be a priority in negotiations. India is also home to much technological knowledge and workers, and heaven knows our state sector needs to be computerised. The expertise of Indian nationals working with our own tech sector can finally get the entire public sector computerised. India also has expertise in much else, and good relations with it in these fields (and not just for expos and fairs) will be to our great benefit.

Brazil, as an emerging power in our region, may offer the greatest benefit to us. We need to transcend the simple trade-in-energy paradigm and move to agricultural trade, where Brazil is a powerhouse. We need to encourage our local firms to take advantage of the booming Brazilian economy. As regional neighbours, there is much we can learn and benefit from each other. Portuguese as a language should be encouraged in our schools alongside Spanish and French.

Russia and the other emerging economies also have much to offer, but with increased risks, given the political and social issues and the widespread corruption. It is notoriously racist and secretive and is a known violator of human rights. Not that these are particular to Russia, but they are factors that we must consider.

So while some are criticising the Prime Minister for visiting India, calling it a sideshow or a waste, I see it as a great opportunity for future success, once it is conducted properly. We are small and we need powerful friends to help us if we are to make it in this treacherous world—a fact that I think sadly eludes most Trinbagonians to their own detriment.

• Rajiv Gopie won the President's Medal in 2006

for business/modern Studies. He is an MSc

candidate in International Relations at the

London School of Economics.