PURELY POLITICAL – Benefits hard to see But Bridgetown/Beijing relations could be severely tested
What’s going on Down?Under (Australia) is a glimpse into the future for everybody. That future also leaves many nations a bit queasy, however. – TIME magazine, June 13.
AMERICA’S PREMIER?WEEKLY took a clinical look at China’s growing impact on the Australian economy, and noted that its demand for Australian exports, especially raw materials, was one big reason Australia didn’t fall into recession after the 2008 financial crisis.
Indeed, TIME noted that as China’s economy grows ever bigger, more and more companies, industries and economies will be sucked into its orbit, just like Australia.
It concluded that despite the bad feelings that have arisen between the two countries, however, China’s roaring economy can’t do without Australia’s resources, and Australia’s prosperity can’t do without China’s roaring economy.
Not too long ago, an official trip to China by a Barbadian prime minister might have been questioned on geo-political grounds.
While there is no questioning now, the role of China has to be understood in the context of the country’s economy recently becoming the second largest in the world and the political muscle it is seeking to exercise in the Caribbean region and the hemisphere.
The distance between the two markets makes it extremely difficult for the smaller state to view opportunities for export as spectacular.
In a sense, any real benefits through trade are more than likely to go the way of the larger state.
Perhaps, over time, opportunities can emerge for Barbados.
In this regard, it was not surprising to learn that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart identified education as the flagship of Barbados.
He was obviously not only underscoring its importance to the country’s development, but might also have been suggesting that it is an area in which there can be genuine functional cooperation between the two countries.
As is the case in CARICOM, the emphasis placed on integration in developing the Caribbean community may have been over-emphasized at the expense of functional cooperation. And given the realities with China, the more immediate emphasis ought rightly to be in areas which are more achievable.
Scope for growth
While China has truly become a power in world affairs, there are still major features of underdevelopment which have to be addressed.
It is known to have the world’s largest population and in many instances, social provisions have to be accommodated within an economic model that still has tremendous scope for growth.
Part of the model is to export services, especially in the area of construction, where its people are highly competitive and the work comes highly recommended. In recent years, Chinese construction companies have found work across the region. Given the ownership structure of these companies, with some involvement of the public sector, aid from China is usually packaged with Chinese workers to do the construction wherever needed.
In acknowledging the Chinese way, Prime Minister Stuart wrapped up the need to replace the old Empire Theatre in the vast cultural experience of China. Certainly, Stuart could not have been indicating a possible cultural transfer but rather would have been emphasizing the building of a cultural centre on the site currently occupied by the old theatre.
There is no doubt that China has culture to export, but does it have a market in the sense that its food has a market?
The potential for cultural penetration is there, but it is going to take decades for it to happen. However, the rate at which it is likely to happen is related to its economic presence.
Therefore, the optimism shared by the prime minister in anticipating some increase in Chinese investment in Barbados must also anticipate a bigger Chinese presence.
Indeed, some countries in the region are known to have offered residence status to Chinese.
Potential to grow
This apparently innocent journey upon which we have embarked has the potential to grow in economic, political and social terms in the next few decades. The journey may offer new challenges as the regional movement becomes stalled for various reasons, especially the threatof immigration.
Imagine immigration remaining a stumbling block for the regional integration movement, at a time when Chinese investment grows so significantly that it is impossible to block inward migration from the very Far East. It would be a challenge again based on wealth and what it brings.
There is no doubt that Barbados recognizes the growing importance of China, sufficiently so to post former Prime Minister Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford there.
It ought not to come as a surprise that with a greater presence in China, the country is able to boast of increasing company registration. What is even more critical is to find out what are the areas of interest being pursued by the registered Chinese companies.
Given the yet fledgling nature of the relationship, Stuart struggled to identify the use to which a $6.5 million grant – apparently received on his trip – would be put. He went as far as to suggest that it would help to stimulate economic activity.
If there is an area in which Barbados can offer an alternative, it may be in alternative energy – our solar energy sector.
But the very scale of what is required in China, along with the distance of the market, makes it difficult for a real economic opportunity to be realized.
For the time being, functional cooperation seems to be the area of benefit for Barbados, while on the economic front, the benefits appear to be skewed in China’s favour, with the potential for a whole lot of inward penetration in the future.
The relationship is set for intriguing times up ahead as differences in size, structure and scope challenge the economic, social and political outcomes.
TIME said the Australians would have to find a way of accommodating a more powerful China, whether they like it or not – and so will the rest of us.
Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email [email protected]