Saturday, February 24, 2018

US-China and Caricom ties

Rickey Singh logo14

Mark Fraser

TRINIDAD and Tobago’s importance to the two most economically powerful countries of the world is being fully displayed this week by virtual back-to-back official visits, first by US Vice-President, Joseph Biden, then by the People’s Republic of China’s President, Xi Jingping.

For those revealing political innocence about these carefully choreographed visits to a small island state, best known internationally for its pace-setting profile in steelband music and calypso, think of oil and natural gas resources and the puzzle quickly clears up.

As the sole  energy-based and economically most advanced nation of the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom), Trinidad and Tobago’s playing of host to America’s Vice-President and China’s President must be viewed as more than a public relations exercise.

The US, as today’s sole global superpower, and China, as the rapidly emerging status challenger, are currently engaged in  strategic competition for economic and political influence in the Latin American-Caribbean region, long arrogantly viewed by the US as its expanded “backyard”.

And it so happens that relatively little T&T—which had long ago secured international recognition for its pan music —has both oil and natural gas —commodities quite helpful to fuelling economic and political influence in any continent. 

It is also relevant to observe that Trinidad and Tobago’s energy resources also enable it to maintain its lead role in trade and investment in the economies of Caricom partner states.

Both America’s Biden, who was scheduled to end his estimated 20-hour visit last night, and the three-day visit, starting Friday of China’s Jingping may yet prove useful in the long-term for Trinidad and Tobago and, by extension its Caricom partners.

Given the hurried arrangements that had to be made by her Caricom colleagues to accept the invitation to meet  with Mr Biden in Port of Spain yesterday for a few hours of discussion and lunch—including the signing of a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA)—it is perhaps an expression of the desire by all Community partners to maintain good relations with T&T as well as the US — more than the outcome of much practical significance in the short or medium term.

After all, given the history of trade and economic relations between the US and Caricom via varied mechanisms over the years, how much thinking really went into drafting the so-called TIFA?

The cynics could well ask what’s the practical value of TIFA—which is to comprise a lead official from Caricom and one from the Office of the US Trade Representative to meet once a year—when the administration of President Barack Obama has failed to effectively remove unfair barriers to Caribbean rum on the US market?  

Further, neither the US President nor his Vice-President could honestly be unaware of Caricom leaders’ anxiety for a summit in Washington since Obama’s first-term. 

However, while in the case of Biden’s visit to Trinidad and Tobago—after visits to Colombia and Brazil—the agenda for Port of Spain included at least a hurried meeting with Caricom heads of government. But no such interest has been exhibited by China’s President.

Yet, President Jingping must be aware of the long, historical Chinese presence and influence in the economic, social and political culture in our region—and quite significantly so, not just in Trinidad and Tobago but also Guyana  and Jamaica. 

Perhaps before he leaves the Caricom region, following visits to South  Africa and Brazil (both members of the BRIC bloc of states involving  those two plus Russia, India and China), President Jingping may at least wish to express his own interest in future relations with Caricom.

It is to be hoped that in his  informal summit with President Obama, scheduled to begin at month end, both the American and Chinese leaders would steer away from the arrogance that, regrettably, expediently takes small states for granted, even when not viewing them as being in anyone’s “backyard”.