During a Global Interdependence Center (GIC) executive briefing yesterday, Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American Studies at the US Army War College, claimed that Caribbean governments often “get bad ends of the deals” with Chinese companies, which are seeking to do more and more business in the region.
“Nobody is saying that governments should not take the Chinese money,” he said.
“I think there are some very real concerns about the way that these things are negotiated, in terms of the level of transparency and the attention of the Chinese to the bureaucratic details.
“…I think again and again there are questions of whether these very capable Chinese companies, with the help of Chinese firms, oftentimes get the better of smaller Caribbean governments who are struggling to deal with and get something good for their own people.”
Ellis pointed to the experience with Baha Mar, which was the brainchild of Sarkis Izmirlian, as one particular example of questionable negotiations.
He said Izmirlian was “basically taken to the cleaners”.
“…Who would think, that at the end of the day, with 2,000 people on payroll that your Chinese business partner would run the project into the ground and then open it up for a small detail in the…arbitration clause…that says if this happens you’re going to end up in Hong Kong, where Mr. Izmirlian was out of his realm,” he said.
Ellis said China’s interest in the logistics and tourism sectors raises questions of sovereignty, pointing to China’s involvement with the Grand Bahama port, The Pointe resort and the North Abaco Port, among other projects.
“Nobody is saying don’t do business with the Chinese, but there are certain aspects of transparency and the details again and again with very capable and often very difficult Chinese negotiators with the support of their government causes these small Caribbean nations to get bad ends of the deal,” he said.
“…How does one…protect one’s own sovereignty when companies like CCA have such an enormous role as an economic actor in the countries?”
Ellis pointed to China’s funding of equipment for countries’ armed services and its interest in providing telecommunications infrastructure as examples of its increasing influence in the region, as well as its use of Confucius Institutes, which allow students to study in China.
He described the institutes as “gatekeeping organizations”.
“The risk is often in countries where there are very few people who actually understand and can speak Mandarin… oftentimes, the people who come to be in their own ministry of foreign affairs or ministry of commerce or the leading business persons in their countries owe that ability to… time studying in China,” he said.
“And so, in many ways, it creates a certain debt of gratitude of those who got their positions through having studied in China, just the same way that we have a generation in the United States through Fullbright scholarships and other places.”
Ellis noted that the US remains a significantly larger partner than China in the Caribbean. However, he conceded that the US has treated the region as a “neglected girlfriend”.
There has been no US ambassador in The Bahamas for several years and no indication as to when the post will be filled.