For much of the last decade the Caribbean has been actively diversifying its political and economic relations. As a consequence, China, Russia, Brazil, India, Korea, Iran, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, as well as long term partners in North America and Europe, are now actively engaged with the region.
At a hemispheric level, the nations of the Caribbean have drawn much closer to near neighbours in Latin America both bilaterally and through institutional arrangements such as CELAC, ALBA, the PetroCaribe arrangement with Venezuela, and other relatively new hemispheric security, financial and development mechanisms.
There has also been an upsurge in interest by the Gulf States, especially Qatar and Abu Dhabi. More recently too, sovereign wealth funds and Turkey have been seeking to engage with countries across the region.
From a Caribbean perspective this has been welcome. It has provided new partners at a time of austerity and has enabled the region to find new sources of economic support and international political leverage as the region seeks to respond to a multi-polar, multi-issue global environment.
One consequence has been that nations like China and Venezuela, and perhaps others in the future, able to offer support to the countries of the region on financially soft terms, have come to play a role in ways that traditional partners in Europe and North America cannot match. This has resulted in the seeming paradox that the nations that are the region’s most important trade and tourism partners, and which share the values and the lifestyles to which most Caribbean people aspire, have become, in some important respects, marginal.
Last week this column suggested that despite this, for any partnership to truly prosper in the Caribbean there needed to be shared values; a lesson that Europe for example has largely learnt and incorporated into its polices by recognising the need for reciprocity, whether through free trade, the provision of development assistance, or other responses which despite shortcomings, denote a genuine affinity.
I noted that there was a need for China, as it emerges as the pre-eminent global economic leader, to insert greater reciprocity into its relationship with the Caribbean, to do more practically to recognise that it is distinct and apart from Latin America, and to find ways to create significant long term employment and contribute to all that might help the Caribbean prosper in the world.
It was essential, I argued, to add value and not simply see the region as a platform for economic advantage or as a counter that one day might be strategically significant. The Caribbean’s strong sense of self-identity and independence required engagement in a manner that passed beyond self-interest.
What space did not permit me to write in developing this theme was that there is also a need for Caribbean politicians to better think through its new range of relationships. Most nations now recognise that the nature of the world and the changing location of political and economic power require fluid and overlapping alliances. However, the region still has much to do to reconcile why the region requires of its traditional partners a commitment to social development, freer trade, development assistance, job creation and more, but from newcomers seeks little more than a commitment to capital investment and cheap money.
That said, in the coming months traditional partners are likely to seek to re-engage in part on the basis of shared values and in a more co-ordinated way than has been the case for many years.
In a world in flux in which new fault lines are emerging, the case is likely to be made that fairness, probity, democracy and a whole range of western precepts relating to the sovereignty of states including equity, justice, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the rights of the individual, are bonds between Europe, North America and the Caribbean that make the relationship special and are values worthy of being strengthened.
For some in the Caribbean this may be challenging given the still lingering sense that important elements of the relationship were squandered through forays into Iraq and Libya; have been skewed by the constant transatlantic focus on security; and have been downgraded by what many Caribbean Governments regard as indifference in high level transatlantic policy towards the region.
Notwithstanding, the Caribbean also has much to do if shared values are to play a greater role. Ministers and officials on both sides of the North Atlantic speak in private about finding it increasingly hard to understand or define the Caribbean thinking in relation to the way their preoccupations have changed. This, they suggest, is not because there is any absence of thought, or willingness to be supportive on common concerns such as vulnerability. Rather, they argue, this is because the region has failed to weave its requirements into a whole that places the Caribbean in a new contextual framework, as a distinct grouping of states with a clear and common agenda that can be linked with the global interests of traditional partners and their acceptance of multi-polarity.
Discussing this recently with a number of senior Caribbean figures outside of government, it is clear that they too feel that there is a pressing need for the region to move beyond where it is today, develop new thinking and start to define where the region or individual nations might be twenty years from now. While they argue that in CARIFORUM at least the same fundamental transatlantic values remain, and that there is no serious interest in a deep regional engagement with the world’s authoritarian democracies, they want to understand where any new emphasis on shared values will lead.
While they accept that the regional leadership deficit remains a problem, they note too that re-engagement will only be of significance if there is long term consistency on the part of traditional partners, a genuine understanding of the issues that matter most to the Caribbean, support in international fora and financial institutions in ways that accommodate the Caribbean’s smallness and vulnerability, and a much better understanding of shared history.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com