Aside from the politics of the U.S.-Mexico border and illegal immigration, the Caribbean Sea is America’s “other” southern border and the gateway to the Western Hemisphere. U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean, which it traditionally considered its “backyard,” is also an extension of domestic politics. It largely begins with Cuba and ends with Venezuela while neglecting the rest of the “small” but strategic island nations of the Caribbean Basin.
It is even more concerning that the Caribbean Sea, which connects Latin America with the United States, is now increasingly being challenged by America’s “strategic competitor,” the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China has its own version of the “Monroe Doctrine” for the Western Hemisphere. Thus, the Chinese strategy is also cleverly aimed at competing and undermining Washington’s enduring support for Taiwan (the Republic of China, ROC), the democratic island nation in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing considers Taiwan a “breakaway province.”
In her timely article on “Guarding Our Backyard: China’s Influence in the Caribbean” in The Hill magazine, U.S. Virgin Island’s Representative Stacey Plaskett warned her fellow lawmakers in Congress against turning “a blind eye to the advancing shadow of Chinese interest creeping into the Western Hemisphere.”
Indeed, Beijing has adopted America’s perennial Monroe Doctrine as China has quietly applied it with the militarized “artificial islands” in the South China Sea. For more than two decades, Beijing has also been increasingly active in the Caribbean Basin to replicate China’s version of the “Monroe Doctrine” to the Western Hemisphere. This foundational American doctrine has long been consistent with President Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary foreign policy and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. These have guided successive U.S. administrations in their approach to keep the Western Hemisphere and the Caribbean Sea free from former colonial powers and outside influence. China, with its own competitive but secret agenda, has now come to dominate the American legacy and to replace it with the modern “Communist Manifesto” for the New Era, or China’s “Third Revolution.”
In his perceptive recent Foreign Affairs article, “The Dysfunctional Superpower: Can a Divided America Deter China and Russia?,” former U.S. Defense Secretary and Director of National Intelligence Robert Gates observes that “the competition with China and even Russia for markets and influence is global. The United States cannot afford to be absent anywhere.” However, the signs of Chinese inroads to America’s backyard have been reported for decades. In his New York Times article in April 2012, Randal Archibold exposed that “China’s economic might has rolled up to America’s doorstep in the Caribbean” and is finally “catching U.S. notice” decades later.
In a congressional testimony in March 2023, General Glen VanHerck—the commander of U.S. Northern Command—told lawmakers that “China is ‘very aggressive’ in the Bahamas…where they have built the largest embassy in the world.” The Chinese Embassy in the Bahamas quickly responded to the U.S. commander’s “groundless accusations,” stating that “Latin America and the Caribbean should not be anyone’s ‘backyard,’ or an arena for major country competition.” Indeed, that is a notion that certainly resonates well in the region.
The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas later announced that “contrary to recent U.S. congressional testimony [by General VanHerck], the PRC has not built the biggest embassy around the globe in the Bahamas.” In a sarcastic social media post aimed at humiliating the American general, Chinese Ambassador to the Bahamas Dai Qingli wrote, “What a compliment!”
However, in a leaked U.S. Embassy cable, the American Embassy in the Bahamas had years earlier reported to Washington in January 2011 that the “exceptionally large Chinese embassy in the Bahamas, given the paucity of bilateral business to conduct, consists of an ambassador and six accredited diplomats.” It was a misreading of the Chinese intention at that time. Nonetheless, the American analysis of Chinese actions in the Bahamas was correct when it concluded that Beijing may be preparing “a strategic move…for a post-Castro Caribbean.”
U.S. diplomats in the Caribbean and Latin America may have finally realized the Chinese intentions and their secret agenda. The reaction came when the lawmakers learned about the recent developments in Cuba. Citing newly declassified intelligence in June 2023, the Washington Post reported that “Beijing and Havana had reached a ‘secret agreement’ to build an eavesdropping station in Cuba, allowing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to harvest electronic communications throughout the southeastern United States, where many military bases are located, and monitor U.S. ship traffic.” Focusing on the United States and beyond, Beijing has reportedly agreed to “pay Havana several billion dollars” for the “secret spy base.”
China’s grand strategy was also revealed with a deep space station in the remote Argentinian region of northwestern Patagonia. It is being managed by the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force. The agreement was signed in 2014; however, it was shrouded in secrecy for its potential to spy and militarize space. In a detailed report including graphics, Reuters characterized it as a “black box,” which is “another example of opaque and predatory Chinese dealings that undermine the sovereignty of host nations,” according to Garrett Marquis, the then spokesman for the National Security Council of the Trump White House.
Capabilities and Intentions: Focusing on Taiwan
China’s increasing diplomatic relations, investment linkages, and trade dealings with the Caribbean and Latin America have a direct connection to the status of Taiwan and its ever more close and special relationship with the United States. Beijing reiterates Taiwan is a renegade province to be “reunified” with the mainland; thus, the diplomatic isolation and “reunification” of the island has always been one of the primary non-negotiable core interests of China’s foreign policy. For Beijing, the Caribbean Sea is a “key battleground” in its efforts to diplomatic isolation of Taiwan.
Among the remaining thirteen member states (including the Vatican) of the United Nations, only five small Caribbean countries—Belize, Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—continue to recognize Taiwan. In March 2023, Honduras cut its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, following the footsteps of the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama. China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean had asserted in 2016 that:
The one China principle is the political basis for the establishment and development of relations between China and Latin American and Caribbean countries and regional organizations. The overwhelming majority of countries in the region are committed to the one China policy and the position of supporting China’s reunification and not having official ties or contacts with Taiwan.
With this policy in place, China has exerted its influence throughout the Western Hemisphere. In 2021, for example, Beijing prevented Guyana from opening a new Taiwan representative office in its capital city of Georgetown. Sending a clear message to other countries, China openly asked Guyanese authorities to “take effective measures and correct the mistake.” Reacting to this, Taiwan complained about Chinese “bullying” regarding Guyana’s decision to revoke the deal.
Overall, China has gradually pursued its stated goal of establishing and developing “state-to-state relations with all Latin American and Caribbean countries based on the one China principle.” To challenge American foreign policy supporting Taiwan, China has even ventured into foregoing its own foreign policy of non-interference in domestic affairs as a guiding principle of its relations with Caribbean and Latin American countries.
Is America Following China?
In the meantime, President Xi Jinping—along with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on October 17, 2023—celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing at a large gathering of representatives from nearly ninety countries. In November 2023, President Joe Biden announced the “Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity” at the inaugural gathering of eleven leaders from the Western Hemisphere at the White House.
At the summit, President Biden declared the launching of “a new investment platform to channel billions of dollars toward building sustainable infrastructure in the hemisphere and strengthening critical supply chains” through the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the Inter-American Development Bank to “grow our economies from the bottom up, and the middle out.” It was partially exporting the theme of President Biden’s political campaign by linking it to his foreign policy.
By emphasizing a renewed BRI focus, President Xi said that both large-scale signature investment projects with government involvement and new “small yet smart” livelihood programs with more private capital will be promoted. The emphasis on private investment in a market and trade-based approach mirrors President Biden’s economic agenda at home and abroad. It is also an invitation for American and Western financial institutions and companies to get more engaged in the BRI.
“Show Me the Money”
While the Biden administration talked about a “friendshoring strategy” to enhance supply chain resilience, China has increasingly been acting as a “strategic competitor” to the United States in the Caribbean and Latin America. Recognizing China’s small but strategic island nations policy, USAID administrator Samantha Power emphasized during her August 2023 trip to Fiji in the South Pacific that “U.S. foreign policy is rooted in a belief that the way to lasting peace and prosperity is actually to integrate diplomacy, defense, and development, the three Ds.”