This weekend President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China will hold their first summit. The meeting, in the 200 acre private Sunnylands, Annenberg estate in California, is the first since the Chinese President took office. It is expressly designed to be informal and to enable the two men to get to know each other, as well as allowing them, their Ministers and senior officials to consider the trade, economic and security issues that divide and unite the world’s two most powerful nations.
In most respects, the two day meeting is evocative of the great strategic encounters of the past that shaped the modern world. From the latter part of the Second World War on, and throughout the Cold War, such summits evidenced the way the world was divided, establishing the fault lines and the policies, until the US emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the world’s only super power.
Since then much has changed, new economic powers have emerged and China’s peaceful rise has returned it to the confident global role it lost many centuries ago.
What happens this weekend, therefore, will mark a turning point in world history, ending the uni-polarity that Jamaica’s former Prime Minister, Michael Manley, so astutely recognised in 1990, as casting adrift and marginalising regions like the Caribbean.
The Annenberg summit will, at the very least, demonstrate the new bipolarity in the world and cause China as well as the United States to have to confront and hopefully accommodate their differing philosophical and strategic views.
It is unlikely that Mr Xi’s recent visit to Latin America and the Caribbean just before his arrival in the United States was coincidental. It sent a strong signal that while the US may be undertaking a pivot to the East – regarding its western view out across the Pacific as the one most critical to its future strategic interests – China now has a strong, positive and rapidly deepening relationship with almost all of the nations of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the new political body that brings together all nations in the Americas other than the US and Canada.
Put another way, Mr Xi’s Latin American and Caribbean visit was almost certainly intended to demonstrate that China was seeking to rebalance relationships with proximate nations to the US that Washington has previously regarded as being within its ability to influence.
In this context the Chinese President’s encounter with the Caribbean days after a visit by the US Vice President, Joe Biden, at his own admission at short notice, marked a significant change in the way in which both the Caribbean is seen and sees itself. It placed the region in a position that it may be able to gently leverage to its advantage.
Both meetings in Trinidad were as important for their tone as well as their content.
The discussions with the US Vice President on May 28 were, both sides agreed, cordial but very frank, with Mr Biden stating afterwards that the US wanted to ‘deepen’ its relationship with the Caribbean, to ‘play a part in the overall development of the region’ and ‘show respect’. This was a humbler US with a new script: “We need you. We need you. And I hope you’ll find a place in your hearts, in your economies, in your quest for energy, in your quest for societalization of your economies that we can play a part with you,” Mr Biden said.
At the meeting the Caribbean found its voice: US interest in the Caribbean had become marginal; relations had been soured by a number of trade disputes; and the US was not providing enough assistance in relation to security, tax and other issues on which it is seeking Caribbean compliance. In response, the US was critical of the Caribbean’s inability to integrate, implement and comply on issues that it regards as being in the region’s own interest.
In a startlingly frank subsequent comment, Haiti’s President Michel Martelly, the present chair of CARICOM, noted: “It would no doubt help the United States to articulate clearly its policy toward the Caribbean which would provide an overarching framework for the relationship and cooperation.” This he noted was this could act as an “important precursor” to a summit with US President Barack Obama.
Then, just two days later on June 2, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, met with those Caribbean nations that have diplomatic relations with China. The tone could not have been more different.
While President Xi called for ‘more vigour and cooperation to boost ties between China and Caribbean nations’ he made clear in bilateral discussions that China was seeking to further deepen its relationship.
Space does not enable me to detail the extensive range of commitments made, but in meetings on both a multilateral and bilateral basis with Trinidad, Grenada, Antigua, Dominica, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Barbados, it became clear that China will significantly scale up its development assistance, investment, and exchanges at a political, business and cultural level in a way not seen before in the region; with the overall objective of a significant deepening of bilateral relations.
Also taking place, but almost unnoticed, was a separate but just as significant a meeting in Havana. In parallel to the Chinese President’s visit, Raúl Castro met Guo Jinlong, a senior member of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. Although the meeting resulted in the signing of a number of economic agreements, the Chinese state media made clear that for Cuba the approach was different. It noted that there was a special political relationship based on a long standing friendship that is ‘deeply cherished’ by the new Chinese leadership, which to quote Mr Guo, ‘supports the Cuban party and government in exploring a socialist development path suitable to the country’s own national conditions’.
Although what occurred in Trinidad may be seen as a sideshow to the discussion that will take place in the US, it cast in sharp relief the changing nature of the ways in which the region sees its future. It also demonstrated in a sometimes dramatic way how historically based relationships, now largely driven by security, are colliding with those that are new, offer future value and provide a philosophical framework and world view with which the region feels more comfortable.
As such, the two high level encounters were auguries for the future, about which more in another column.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org