China is pulling out all the stops in its courtship of TT. Just this month, Government signed multi-million-dollar deals with Chinese state-owned Shanghai Construction Group to construct the new central block at Port of Spain General Hospital, and with China Gezhouba Group International Engineering Co for 6,000 Housing Development Corporation units by 2020. And Shanghai Construction will also be building an arch across part of Charlotte Street in Port of Spain designated to be TT’s very own Chinatown.
China has been making overtures to the country for years now – Premier Xi Jinping even stopped over for a brief visit in 2013 and both former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and incumbent Dr Keith Rowley have made official visits to China in 2014 and 2018, respectively. It’s still the romance phase of the courtship, though, and the country is fully ensconced within the Chinese government’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road manifesto, and its promises of greatness. On Rowley’s return last year, among the treats he announced were a US$100 million tech park in Point Lisas and a dry docking facility in La Brea projected to bring in US$500 million in revenue – projects conveniently funded by concessional loans.
China has enticed the country’s leaders – across administrations – with the promise of investment and growth. It has provided billions of dollars worth of concessional loans to fund ostensibly politically expedient mega projects, with the assurance to TT that these preferential arrangements will be beneficial in the long run.
TT clearly has already put out too much in this dynamic – the country reportedly owes China over $6 billion.
Too many of these edifices built with easy Chinese money remain critically underused, from the National Academy of the Performing Arts to the Couva Hospital. Only last week, the Health Minister announced the hospital will be managed as a multi-purpose facility by the North Central Regional Health Authority.
As munificent as these arrangements appear, in the long run, they can backfire. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, ceded to China for 99 years as repayment of debts, is the most glaring example.
TT also seems to be drifting further from its traditional friends, many of whom are concerned at the amount of time the country is spending in the company of China.
In an interview with Business Day in March, US scholar Dr Evan Ellis noted that one of the consequences of these preferential loans is that they eschew the traditional criteria for transparency, which can sometimes enable corruption and undermine institutions. And countries that do deals with China based on these types of arrangements need to be vigilant of the repercussions.
At this time, there’s not much else to do other than wait and see what happens. Many of the newer projects are in the feasibility-study phase, and none seems to be deliverable within this fiscal year.
As China continues its thrust into the region, we can only suggest caution. The US, traditionally one of TT’s strongest allies is currently embroiled in an escalating trade war with China, the repercussions of which will inevitably reverberate through the region. There will be opportunities for TT to capitalise on, of course, especially with direct-to-China trade, education and culture but at the same time, it would be foolish to alienate completely our most powerful neighbour in the hemisphere.
As this relationship grows more complex, and as China demonstrates a clear dominance in the power dynamic, TT must remember it is a strong, independent nation. We welcome deeper ties with China but we hope the country doesn’t sacrifice its sovereignty for the sake of a few pretty promises.