The Chinese Are Coming!

Beijing is building schools and stadiums in the Caribbean. Washington should avoid the temptation to overreact. 

In one of those breathless reports about the dangers posed by the rising China, the New York Times informs us that the Chinese have reached the Caribbean beaches. Behold what they dared to do: they built “a brand new $35 million stadium” in the Bahamas. You’re not alarmed yet? “The tiny island nation of Dominica has received a grammar school, a renovated hospital and a sports stadium. . . . Antigua and Barbuda got a power plant and a cricket stadium, and a new school is on its way.”

The Times adds that “the Chinese have flexed their economic prowess in nearly every corner of the world. But planting a flag so close to the United States has generated intense vetting—and some raised eyebrows.” The term “planting a flag” is revealing. It implies that the nation behind these gifts is seeking conquest. Flags are usually planted to indicate that this is now our territory. Google “planting a flag” and the first image that jumps up is that of Iwo Jima. The Russians made this kind of claim on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole. So far, though, there are no signs that China has territorial ambitions in the Caribbean.

Indeed, the Times goes on to explain that “most analysts do not see a security threat, noting that the Chinese are not building bases or forging any military ties.” One wonders, who are the other analysts who do see a security threat? Indeed, if the Chinese do have global military ambitions, they would be foolhardy to reveal them—well before they are ready to suit up—in our backyard.

The terms “emerging superpower” and seeking to make “inroads” that the Times next employs all have ominous sounds about moves that the United States has long engaged in and lauded—under the rubric of foreign aid and trade. The Chinese motives seem to be similar: engendering some goodwill is good for business. This is especially true for China, whose economy is based on exports of goods and imports of massive amounts of raw material and energy sources.

Dennis C. Shea, the chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan Congressional panel, said that “with China you have to be wary of possible policy goals behind the effort.” Sir Ronald Sanders, a former diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda, adds that if “China continues to invest the way it is doing in the Caribbean, the U.S. is almost making itself irrelevant to the region. You don’t leave your flank exposed.” They thus combine a touch of paranoia—you never know what these people are really up to—with military imagery (exposing our flank).

If the United States is really worried about these Chinese moves, let us build some more schools and roads and stadiums ourselves and best China’s recent investment in the Caribbean. But otherwise, we should keep our shirts on. Maybe it would help keep things in perspective if we remember the panic and breast-beating that followed when the Japanese got even closer—they purchased Rockefeller Center, right in the heart of New York City! We did live to tell.

We also recently learned that U.S. diplomatic cables released through WikiLeaks show Western diplomats are worried about the Chinese presence “less than 190 miles from the United States.” But what are they worried about? The noise from the stadiums will not carry that far, and the new schools will not draw students from Florida. As for political support, what have the Bahamas, Dominica and Antigua to offer? A vote in the UN General Assembly? For what? And why would that trouble us?

China will soon discover in the Caribbean what it is already learning in Africa, Brazil and Southeast Asia—that nations take these gifts happily but are soon to ask: “What else have you done for me lately?” As the United States discovered, foreign aid and trade do not endear one to their beneficiaries. And China’s labor practices don’t help: developing nations complain about the fact that the Chinese often do not hire locals but bring their own workers, that the natives they do hire endure poor working conditions and receive poor wages, and that the terms of trade are unfair. It’s a “new colonialism.” In several cases, most recently in Burma and Vietnam, Chinese overtures led these nations to move closer to the United States. In short, China’s drives face increasing pushback and are thus largely self-limiting.

Like most societies, the United States is always tempted to see an adversary, if not an enemy, lurking about. Once it was Japan, then the EU, now China is framed as a mounting threat. Nations often respond in kind to such characterization, leading to a vicious cycle in which one nation voices suspicions that the other nation sees as confirmation of its concerns, then responds—all leading to a gradual increase in hostile feelings and a military buildup. That we are now dragged into this kind of psychological tit-for-tat in China has been documented by a recently released important paper by leading American scholar Kenneth Lieberthal and Chinese scholar Wang Jisi. We best “keep our cool”—we have little to fear but the reactions to our fears.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.