Growing influence of China easy to see half a world away in Caribbean

Walking into the post office in Roseau, Dominica, I saw the usual scenes of bureaucracy I would expect anywhere around the world: drab plastic countertops, marquee ropes controlling lines and less-than-enthused employees weighing packages and filing paperwork. What I didn’t expect to see was a 2010 “Scenery of the Great Wall” calendar. This calendar was displayed prominently on the back wall of the office.

My visit to the Commonwealth of Dominica (not to be confused with its Caribbean island neighbor, the Dominican Republic) coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year. Dominica bills itself as “The Nature Island of the Caribbean,” offering dramatic volcanic mountains, hot springs, rainforests and world-famous diving spots. Several parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed on the island. While I expected the ecological wonders I encountered, what I didn’t expect was the visible evidence of Chinese investment in the country.

Dominica’s population hovers at approximately 70,000 and has an unemployment rate of about 23 percent. The government is trying to increase revenue through ecotourism and off-shore banking systems – and a new relationship with China.

There is a highly visible Chinese presence in the area: While exploring the city, I came upon the brand-new Windsor Park Sports Stadium, which proudly displayed the sign “Through a grant from the People’s Republic of China to the Government of Dominica.” A new bridge project and new government buildings have just been completed by Chinese construction. Multiple Chinese restaurants, dry cleaners and import shops are visible in Roseau.

These projects stem from the 2004 decision that Dominica would stop recognizing the government of The Republic of China (what is commonly called Taiwan) as the country’s legitimate ruling body and instead recognize to The People’s Republic of China (what is commonly referred to and recognized as China). Reports vary on how much China paid the government of Dominica for this recognition, but according to The Economist it was $122 million over five years. Both China and Taiwan have a history of using monetary incentives to earn diplomatic recognition, in countries from the Pacific to Africa.

But what could China really want from a country with such a small population and economic instability? Caribbean outreach allows China to grow its influence in every region of the world. These ties allow for economic interaction and the establishment of global economic and diplomatic ties.

I asked Martin, the driver of a taxi shuttle I took in Dominica, what he thought about the Chinese investment. He said he was glad the island had a new cricket stadium, so that bigger games and better teams could visit the island. He said he was unsure, however, as to why the Chinese wanted to give his island all of these things. They were far away and, from what he could tell, had no reason to have this much interest in the country.

Martin went on to tell me how the Chinese projects only used Chinese workers. No Dominican men had been hired to build the bridge or stadium. Instead, all of the temporary workers had come from China, and lived in dormitories on the grounds of the new government building they were constructing. I saw these dormitories, decorated with the red banners of New Year’s celebrations, and noticed that all of the signage anywhere near construction areas was in Mandarin rather than English, Dominica’s official language.

The construction projects had nothing to do with improving the lives of Dominicans on a personal level. Projects like the stadium would have been able to give jobs to many of the 23 percent unemployed on the island. Even the construction of the government’s own buildings were undertaken by Chinese workers. These “gifts” were achieving little beyond aesthetic renovations, and the government of Dominica seemed fine with it. Many young people are leaving the island to seek jobs and send remittances back to their families. Martin’s daughter was one of these young people. He told me she was 25 and had moved to Belize a few years ago so that she could find a job.

While on the island, I visited an organic farm that tried to make up for the lack of financial opportunity on the island. Roy Ormond, the owner of Harmony Farms, wants to distill essential oils from his herbs and produce, which he could market globally, but he needs money and government support to complete these projects. He told me his daughter is currently applying for grants from USAID to purchase the equipment he needs. Ray didn’t expect anything from the government of Dominica despite the millions the Chinese had given the country.

As Dominica grows in popularity as a tourist destination and place to stash money into offshore accounts, there will have to be a shift eventually. Will the government cater to the policies of the Chinese in exchange for continuing funds, or will it begin to use the powerful friendship it has made to improve the lives of its people?

The one souvenir I purchased in Dominica was a small flag. Featuring the Sisserou parrot, a bird native to Dominica, the flag was actually made in China but sold in a tourist market next to magnets featuring Barack Obama and reproductions of native art.

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