China’s Jamaica Policy: A Less Clumsy Alternative to U.S.-Taiwan Relations

On July 8, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced a $2 billion sale of weapons to Taiwan, including M1A2T Abrams tanks, Hercules armored vehicles, and heavy equipment transporters. The world never fails to notice when this kind of brinksmanship occurs at China’s doorstep. But we should take note of China’s recent activities in Jamaica where Beijing is engaging in its own kind of backyard diplomacy.

The Taiwan Template

Before we talk about what China has been up to in Jamaica, we would be well served to revisit a fortieth anniversary that recently passed unremarked. In January 1979, the United States finally recognized the People’s Republic China, unable to keep up the charade that the offices of China’s legitimate government were in Taipei. But reluctant to abandon its traditional ally, the U.S. established the Taiwan Relations Act, perhaps the most disingenuous bilateral arrangement ever conceived. Instead of dealing with a “Republic of China”, the U.S. would deal with the “governing authorities on Taiwan”. Instead of operating an embassy, it would run an “American Institute in Taiwan” that would offer passport services and perform other consular affairs. And just in case other countries (left unnamed) attempted to boycott, embargo, or threaten Taiwan, the Act stipulated that the U.S. would continue “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”.

But the Taiwan Relations Act also made money—lots of it. Certainly there was the beef, soybeans, weapons, tea and plastics trade, worth 76 billion USD last year. More important, Taiwan’s semi-conductor supply chains and contract component manufacturers have helped the U.S. keep its perch atop the global economy. Both mainland China and the U.S. now vie to collaborate with Taiwan electronic chip and mobile device makers as the battle over future control over and security of 5G networks rages. So maybe it is not so surprising that China has set up shop in Jamaica, a place China understandably sees as America’s backyard. After all, China has a highly successful template for this kind of arrangement. 

Buying the Backyard

China views the ocean through a thick lens of history; here is where Jamaica comes in. China’s Carribean strategy has always been inseparable from Taiwan relations. Since 1979, mainland China and Taiwan have engaged in an awkward diplomatic rivalry where both showered money and attention on Caribbean countries in exchange for diplomatic relations. Taiwan has managed to hold on to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Haiti, St. Lucia, and Belize. Mainland China has Jamaica and the rest. So it is hard to imagine that China does not enjoy a measure of historical satisfaction when Jamaica, an economy near the geographic center of the Caribbean region, becomes a node on the Belt and Road, which it did in April 2019.

While Chinese developers are building roads, hospitals, and stadiums all over the Caribbean region, China has lavished much of its attention on Jamaica. Xi Jinping visited Jamaica in 2009 to open a Confucius Institute at the University of the West Indies in Mona, three years before he assumed office. The massive state-owned China Communications Construction Company built the North-South highway from Kingston to Ocho Rios. Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company took over Jamaica’s main bauxite refinery in Nain and is planning an industrial park and special economic zone next door. The China Business Network has created and maintained elaborate Chinese-language Caribbean investment-attraction web site for JAMPRO, Jamaica’s trade development agency. On April 11, Ambassador Tian Qi signed a memorandum with Jamaican foreign affairs minister Kamina Johnson Smith inducting Jamaica into the Belt and Road Initiative. On June 25, the ambassador was on hand at a ground-breaking ceremony for massive city-center project in Montego Bay that will include government, education, leisure, industrial and commercial spaces.

Geopolitics Seaside

Like the Opium Wars (and Taiwan relations), the battle over the Caribbean is going to be about trade. After the post-upgrade Panama Canal began commercial operations in 2016, the chaotic race began to establish a Caribbean deep-water port that would act as a trans-shipping hub for New Panamax ships capable of holding 14,500 containers (TEUs). Before environmentalist opposition forced the Jamaican government to scrap the deal, the China Harbour Engineering Company was set to start work on a massive trans-shipment center on the Goat Islands. The container port was to be a gateway to a regional Caribbean economy, both for ships coming from Europe and from China through the canal. Meanwhile, China’s National Development and Reform Commission has vigorously promoted Chinese involvement in maritime equipment manufacturing, seafood processing, oceanic chemicals, fishing technology, aquaculture, and other aspects of the “seaside economy”. The banner on China’s Jamaican embassy website proclaims the office as a “permanent mission of PRC to International Seabed Authority”, suggesting that China may be more interested in the seas around Jamaica than in the real estate itself. Chinese media has noted Jamaica’s 89,000 square nautical miles of territorial seas and the rich supply of tuna, lobster, and conch it produces. 

It is hard to imagine China being particularly happy about the July 8 arms sale. But it must be somewhat gratifying to see the U.S. ignoring two important competitions developing at its back door, one over the flow of containers and an even bigger one over the global “blue economy”.