Home collateral Barbados splits from Queen, swapping one empire for another

Barbados splits from Queen, swapping one empire for another


On Tuesday, the Royal Standard flag depicting the Queen was lowered for the last time in nearly 400 years above Barbados, the Caribbean island which is now a republic with a president as the head of state. At the handover ceremony declaring Barbados’ constitutional independence, Prince Charles delivered a contrite speech and Rihanna was officially declared a national heroine.

It doesn’t sound particularly dramatic. After all, Her Majesty’s Government has granted independence to countries making up a quarter of the world’s land mass since 1945. The British have learned to be gracious in their withdrawal from empire.

Barbados remains a member of the Commonwealth – the loose association of former members of the British Empire chaired by Queen Elizabeth. And many observers believe it is only a matter of time before the rest of Britain’s former colonies, including sovereign states as large as Australia, follow suit with their own heads of state.

But the inclination that accompanies the new republic towards China should concern its former colonial ruler as well as the United States.

Barbados and Beijing may seem unlikely bedfellows, but the warmth of their relationship is a miniature case study for projecting Chinese influence around the world. Britain and the United States have not paid enough attention to it.

Despite all its rhetoric about post-Brexit global ambitions, the UK government has failed to invest in Commonwealth soft power. China, meanwhile, has injected hundreds of billions of dollars into Commonwealth countries in recent years.

First Jamaica and now Barbados have joined in with China’s global Belt and Road Initiative to invest in infrastructure and expand its influence. Since 2013, $ 6 billion has been pumped into Uncle Sam’s Caribbean backyard, many of whose island states are financially fragile and prone to ruinous extreme weather events.

Barbados’ left-wing government appears content with its new friend, but the new republic should be careful not to trade the Queen’s purely token imperial figurehead for deeper bondage in Beijing.

Many countries have neglected the fine print in their agreements with China at their peril. In exchange for a brand new port, athletics stadium, airport or railway line, the beneficiary country offers a territorial guarantee. Failure to repay on time leads to land grabbing. No transfer of skills is included in the package either, creating additional dependence on China.

In 2017, Sri Lanka ceded a 99-year lease on the Port of Hambantota to China after it was unable to pay the debt for its redevelopment. In Uganda, China has been accused of trying to seize the international airport it built after a row over conditions.

The 19th-century builders of the British Empire, who provided bases for the Royal Navy and engulfed vast territories following the signing of unequal treaties, reportedly recognized this debt diplomacy as a key part of the Great Game.

Britain and America belatedly realize the threat. In his first public speech as boss of MI6 this week, the UK’s foreign intelligence agency, Richard Moore accused Beijing of trying to lure nations into “debt and data traps.” Chinese technology sales are being used to collect data that enables an “authoritarian control network” around the world, he said.

To be sure, China plays aid diplomacy more ruthlessly than the West. Its strength translates into votes in the United Nations Assembly and other UN bodies. The World Health Organization’s pusillanimous response to China’s suppression of information about the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan is just the most notorious example. Despite the outcry it sparked in the West, Beijing continued to thwart a WHO investigation into possible virus leaks from its labs.

Britain and the United States are less successful in using their leverage.

Every year since 1984, the US State Department has been required to present to Congress the number of votes of UN member states. Its ranking of General Assembly voting “coincidences” for 2020 reveals that China and Cuba, as one would expect, rarely voted with the US side on contested resolutions. Jamaica and Barbados voted with the United States, respectively, only 25% and 26% of the time. Ethiopia, a major recipient of British aid, sided with the United States in just 22% of disputed votes.

Of course, Western aid cannot be purely transactional – we have a humanitarian duty to help the poorest people on this planet. But when is giving a blank check to your enemies good policy? Last year, the UK even donated 79 million pounds ($ 105 million) in foreign aid to China.

At the G7 summit this summer, President Joe Biden received support for his Build Back Better World proposal to help developing countries invest in infrastructure to adapt to climate change. Britain is offering £ 8 billion a year to attract private investment into the effort.

Although the West does not demand a territorial guarantee, its financial institutions insist on a commercial return that inevitably drives up costs. Its terms are more prescriptive and intrusive. Botswana rejected a British aid deal because it insisted on imposing its own demanding wild animal husbandry regime.

Chinese aid does not come with any obligation to uphold ecological and good governance standards (and anti-corruption rules) or even to make a profit.

Not all of China’s investments in the new Great Game will pay off. Aid recipients like Pakistan have cheated on the United States in the past and can cheat new friends as well. But Beijing knows you have to pay to play. The West has been too slow to put its chips on the table.