Jamaica has had a long history with colonialism and economic exploitation, be it slavery and the British or the neo-colonialism imposed by the US, Jamaica has had a horrid experience when dealing with outside powers. With that in mind, recently over the past decade, we have been hearing an ever-increasing warning that the Chinese who have been heavily investing in this country may have sinister motives and that we are blindly walking into a debt trap and neo-colonialism as seen in the late 1800s to early 1900s.
These seemingly paranoid persons have some sound arguments and in many ways are correct to sound the warning bell. The Chinese after all, do have deals in which part of the payment they receive is a parcel of prime land, and it is also true that in some cases where the host country can no longer manage the venture that the Chinese step in and legally seize the asset (be they ports or hydro-electric plants). The Chinese also as is readily evident have no problem making deals which are clearly one-sided or on the shady side but I think that these persons (who are doing a service by keeping us vigilant of a possible debt trap) are missing something which differentiates the Chinese and their practices from those of say the British in Argentina or the US in Central America.
The key thing here is that though the Chinese may negotiate one-sided deals if the chance arises, they will also re-negotiate said one-sided deal if the other nation so wishes. A matter of fact, most projects which are done by the Chinese are not borne out of the Chinese imagination but are simply funded and built by them. Example, the Chinese did not think up the proposed highway between Harbour View and Portland, but they are funding it and building it. If the highway is unprofitable or ends up being a white elephant that’s not on China, that is in fact on our local planners who would be responsible for China getting even more of our land as is the case in Sri Lanka.
Greece, while it was going through the depths of its economic trauma, sold many state assets (including ports) to foreigners, Chinese included. After SYRIZA swept to office their finance minister had a look at the contracts and realised that they were one-sided, and in a major way. After informing the Chinese counterparts that the deal was a no-go China re-negotiated the deal. Think about that, rather than sitting on a legal contract which gave them an unfair advantage in a key economic zone (economic imperialism) the Chinese chose to re-negotiate the deal to something more favourable to Greece.
That does not strike me as the kind of behaviour a budding empire would display, rather it would seem to be the kind of behaviour a businessman displays. You have something to sell, they want to buy it, let’s do a deal and if you don’t like it re-negotiate, that is a pattern seen in many countries where the Chinese have done business. The Chinese have renegotiated with Greece, Malaysia, Venezuela, Argentina, South Africa and literally dozens more nations, so if they are willing to renegotiate these deals and shy away from economic imperialism what really is the problem?
There are two problems so far as I can see and both are rather disappointing when one really thinks about it. The first is that China, the PRC, governed by the party which gave us Mao and Deng is more than happy to do deals which are blatantly one-sided and at times engage in shady deals. This is disappointing because I would expect China to behave better as many nations and persons look to it as a beacon of third-world rags to riches and revolution and this behaviour tarnishes that reputation. The second factor which is most disappointing (if it does indeed pan out) is that our government or any for that matter wouldn’t attempt to re-negotiate these deals especially in light of the other nations who have.
The problem on the Chinese side is both out of our hands and being dealt with by the Chinese authorities (see the heightened and extended crackdown taking place now), what we need to do on our side, the side of the person taking the money, good, service or infrastructure is to ensure that the deals are made in a transparent way void of pork belly, and actively push to renegotiate deals which are potentially more harmful than beneficial. If we go about making deals in that manner, then it would be extremely difficult to end up in unfair deals or fearful of the debt trap while also enjoying much needed foreign infrastructure investment.
With the MOF recently coming out and stating that the debt owed to the Chinese should be repaid within a decade one can only hope that the GOJ continues to strike balanced deals with what can thus far be called a most reliable partner. This news, while it should be welcomed by those who have consistently warned against the debt trap should not be the end of it. They should remain vigilant, continue to warn against the very real dangers of the debt trap and ask for transparency with ALL contracts and deals done with foreign governments and companies and demand renegotiations of the deals when/if they are found to be to our detriment.
So make the deals where we have to and ensure vigilance, that’s all we can and should be doing. Haranguing the Chinese for looking out for their own is pointless and condemning our government without demanding renegotiations is fruitless. Let’s aim for that as we seek to finally upgrade the country in ways it hasn’t been for some time.