China’s Communist Party (CCP) seems to be implementing a multidimensional strategy in the Caribbean, reaping economic, political and potentially military gains a few miles offshore the United States. China’s ultimate objective of its Caribbean strategy may well be to confront the U.S., not only with its presence near the mainland U.S., but also with a situation analogous to America’s military presence in the region of the South China Sea. There, China created new islands in the sea, pledged not to militarize them, then went and militarized them.
It is important to remember that China also promised Hong Kong autonomy until 2047, then, in 2020, jumped the gun by 27 years. “Hong Kong will be another communist-run city under China’s strict control,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in July. China is clearly not a government that honors its agreements.
The CCP leadership has also been launching a diplomatic effort in the Caribbean with the goal of delegitimizing the state of Taiwan, while encouraging regional countries to open relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Chinese shipments of military and police equipment to several Caribbean states could be developing into beachheads for future People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “advisory groups” in the Western Hemisphere. China’s construction projects already include the modernization of airports and seaports, which could increase Chinese geopolitical and military influence in the region. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe already is on record expressing China’s willingness to deepen military cooperation with Caribbean countries.
Additionally, China has been investing considerable revenue in the economies of the hemisphere’s anti-American Caribbean socialist states of Cuba and Venezuela. China’s establishment of a Caribbean Belt and Road Sector is an opportunity for CCP intelligence operatives to suborn the sovereignty of Caribbean countries by luring these societies into “debt trap” economic dependency on China. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the country’s inability to pay back its Chinese creditors for Beijing’s modernization of the port of Hambantota has resulted in the South Asian country’s effective loss of the port.
China’s Caribbean offensive so far includes a “medical diplomacy” initiative that is providing Latin America, but especially the region’s island states, with face masks, personal protective gowns and gloves, ventilators, ambulances, and pharmaceuticals. In May, China convened a video-link conference on the COVID-19 virus at the vice-ministerial level with the nine Caribbean countries that have diplomatic relations with Beijing: Antigua, Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Dominica, Granada, Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
China’s dominant role as a world leader in the production of pharmaceuticals and medical devices is, as presumably intended, enabling the Chinese to garner considerable good will in the region. China has already delivered 30,000 virus test kits to Jamaica and at least 100,000 protective masks to Cuba as well as about 100 ventilators to the Dominican Republic. China also has built hospitals in Dominica, St. Kitts, Barbados, and Trinidad, as well as a children’s hospital in Jamaica. Throughout the COVID-19 virus epidemic, China has also donated medical supplies to around 15 Caribbean states.
Chinese investors are plowing millions of dollars into tourist-oriented construction projects. China’s state-supported construction enterprises are building hotel resorts in the Bahamas, Guyana and Barbados. Of more concern to U.S. security interests is the ongoing seaport expansion project in the already commercially important port at Kingston, Jamaica, as well as the port at Freeport, Bahamas, China’s possible new base of operations 90 miles off the U.S. coast.
Other Chinese sponsored port projects are underway at Cuba’s ports of Santiago and Mariel, as well as Guyana’s port of Berbice. Another Chinese construction project that deserves scrutiny for its implication for U.S. national security is China’s modernization of Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan international airport. Once the site of U.S. Air Force military operations during World War II, with its runway of over 10,000 feet, it is capable of hosting Chinese military jet aircraft. However, disagreements over the terms of the original contract signed in 2011 are a source of tension between the Chinese contractor and the usually pro-Chinese Guyanese government. China also has an interest in regional access to raw materials such as bauxite from Jamaica, and offshore oil near Guyana.
The Chinese regime is effectively employing “soft power” by way of propagating anti-U.S. diplomacy through China’s regional ambassadors and Confucius Institutes. Particularly active in this regard is Liu Quan, the China’s Ambassador to Suriname. China’s propaganda arm has established approximately 10 of its 45 pro-Communist Confucius Institutes in the region, in Antigua and Barbuda, Suriname, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. These institutes propagate the same ideological pro-Chinese Communist Party, anti-Taiwan line. Additionally, the Confucius Institute in Suriname, home to one of the largest number of overseas Chinese of any country in the region, may also be attempting to recruit agents.
In 2018, the Dominican Republic revoked its diplomatic ties to Taiwan, presumably to take advantage of the economic opportunities that relations with China might bring.
China’s military agenda in the Caribbean region includes the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, which has donated Chinese Y-12 transport aircraft to Guyana. PLA military aid continues to arrive in Jamaica. Chinese-produced motorcycles have been exported to West Indian police forces in Trinidad and Tobago, and police cars to Guyana. Moreover, selected military officers from virtually every Caribbean country continue to receive training at Chinese military academies.
Were China to establish a beachhead in the Caribbean, the U.S. could be faced with a dark replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. China could insist that the U.S. reduce, or entirely withdraw, its considerable military force structure in the Western Pacific Ocean, in exchange for a draw-down of PLA assets in the Caribbean – or any other bargain it dreamed up.
U.S. policymakers need seriously to address Communist China’s aggressive expansionist policies in the Caribbean. The U.S. should not permit the PLA Air Force or the PLA Navy to establish bases that could interfere with American freedom of navigation, both for commerce and for military convoys re-supplying NATO allies in the event of a military crisis. The U.S. can ill afford any Chinese drive to place under threat any Western Hemisphere country, much less the United States.
Lawrence A. Franklin, Ph.D., was Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and the Air Force Reserve. Reprinted with permission from Gatestone Institute.