Through its large infrastructure construction and port services management companies, China already controls the management of ports in almost the entire Caribbean, with the notorious exception of the Dominican Republic, which has decided not to hand over any strategic infrastructure to the Chinese so as not to jeopardize its good relationship with the United States, on which it depends so much economically. China has the busiest port in the West Indies (Kingston, Jamaica) and the main port of the closest US ally to its shores (Freeport, Bahamas, only 150 kilometers from Florida).
The head of the U.S. Southern Command has just sounded the alert again. Admiral Craig Faller, who commands the section of the U.S. Armed Forces that is concerned with the entire southern neighborhood of the U.S., is one of the most active voices warning about the progressive penetration of China in what Washington considers its “backyard”. On the occasion of recent visits to the Caribbean, Faller has referred to Beijing’s latest efforts to acquire ports in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, completing a port network that Washington sees as a threat, close to the Panama Canal, which is of great strategic value to the US.
The hypothetical threat is that, if Beijing deems it necessary, Chinese companies should submit to the will of its government, so that civilian facilities could be placed at the service of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Jamaica and the Dominican Republic
The latest port moves took place last year. In April 2020 the company China Merchants Port Holdings became the majority shareholder in a thirty-year concession of the Jamaican port of Kingston, which is the busiest of the Caribbean islands and the closest to the Panama Canal, making it an interesting logistics hub for Beijing, which is the second largest Canal customer after the U.S. Jamaica is the main beneficiary of Chinese public loans to the Antilles, with 2.1 billion dollars since 2005, for the construction of highways, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure. It has also received a $3 billion investment for bauxite mining and sugar production.
In 2019 the Jamaican government denied, for environmental reasons, the possibility of China promoting another port, this time on Goat Island, and announced that it would not request further credits from China because it did not want to become over-indebted; nevertheless, the close relationship between the two countries has been maintained.
Beijing has also shown interest in developing a port in the Dominican Republic, but has not achieved its goal. In early 2020 the Chinese ambassador, Zhang Run, targeted the port of Manzanillo, in the municipality of Pepillo Salcedo, which is located on the north coast, next to the border with Haiti. This is a suitable location for routes to the United States, and its development would complement the two ports flanking Santo Domingo on the south coast (Caucedo and Río Haina).
However, Dominican President Luis Abinader has rejected this possibility. On a visit to Washington last October, Abinader stated that Chinese investments are “welcome”, as long as it is “in non-strategic areas of the country”. “The strategic areas are well defined: ports, airports, telecommunications. These are areas that go over the security of the country,” he warned. He indicated that the Dominican Republic needs to maintain excellent relations with the US, to which it destines more than 50% of its exports and where two million Dominicans reside. However, in 2018 the country stopped recognizing Taiwan (in the wake of the change made by several Central American countries) and in 2019 requested a 600 million credit for the improvement of its electrical grid.
China has also built or manages docks in the Bahamas, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, and Antigua and Barbuda. In the case of the Bahamas, a Hong Kong company runs the Freeport terminals, the fourth busiest port in the West Indies, behind only Kingston (Jamaica), San Juan (Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that has not ceded vital infrastructure to the Chinese) and Caucedo (Dominican Republic). In addition, another Chinese company has built new facilities in North Abaco, another of the Bahamian islands. In Cuba, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) was in charge of the construction of the new terminal at the port of Santiago, inaugurated in 2019.
These works, carried out through Chinese loans, have been carried out in most cases as part of the protocols of the New Silk Road, an initiative to which eight Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago, have joined. Part of this expansion of Chinese influence in the region has been the opening of nine Confucius centers (for a population of only 41 million inhabitants) and “gifts” of cricket stadiums for nations colonized by England, as in Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago.
On the other hand, the English press has attributed to Chinese pressure the decision of Barbados to leave the Commonwealth, something that will become effective next November, as announced by local authorities.