On-going trade tensions between the United States of America (US) and China reached a new low point last week. Beijing cancelled upcoming trade talks with Washington in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s announcement of tariffs on a further $200 billion dollars’ worth of Chinese imports, starting September 24th. The Chinese government announced that it will retaliate with tariffs on a further US$60 billion dollars’ worth of US imports.
US-China relations have had turbulent periods throughout the years, but the Trump Presidency has taken a markedly more aggressive stance to Beijing’s purported unfair trade practices which the US President blames for China’s large merchandise trade surplus with the US, estimated to be US$375 billion in 2017.
With the US as the Caribbean region’s main trading partner and China, a growing economic presence in the region, will the Caribbean be caught in the middle of this spat between the world’s two largest economic superpowers? And is there anyway in which the region could possibly benefit?
It must first be noted that Caribbean countries’ policy towards the recognition of either the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or the Republic of China (ROC – Taiwan) is fragmented. Five (Belize, Haiti, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and St. Lucia) out of fifteen Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member States still recognise Taiwan as a sovereign State. Moreover, it was only this week that China opened an embassy in the Dominican Republic after that country severed ties with Taiwan earlier. As such, not all Caribbean countries have diplomatic or economic ties with the PRC, but the majority do.
In the midst of declining US presence in the Caribbean, Beijing has sought to fill the void through mainly bilateral engagement with individual Caribbean governments. China has become an increasingly important source of foreign direct investment, government loans, and development aid and cooperation. A growing number of infrastructure projects throughout the region have been built with Chinese funding and labour. The Chinese Government has also long provided generous government scholarships to Caribbean nationals whose countries recognize the PRC.
China-Caribbean trade flows have increased and China has widened its trade surplus with the region. According to Ambassador Dr. Richard L. Bernal in his insightful book “Dragon in the Caribbean”, while Caribbean countries’ imports from China have grown “substantially and rapidly”, Caribbean exports to China have increased, but not nearly in as robust a manner. The Chinese Ambassador to Barbados has been reported as stating last week that in “the first six months of this year trade volume between Bridgetown and Beijing reached US$79.8 million”, a rapid increase.
While China’s deepened economic engagement with the Caribbean is relatively recent, US-Caribbean relations with the region it considers its “backyard” or “third border” are longstanding, dating back to colonial times. The US is not just the region’s largest trading partner, but since the late 1980s many Caribbean countries have benefited from duty-free, quota-free access for most goods to the US market under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a non-reciprocal goods-only preferences programme.
The US is the major source market for Caribbean tourist arrivals, with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation reporting an estimated 14.9 million US arrivals to the region in 2017. US-Caribbean ties also manifest through the relatively large Caribbean-American diaspora which numbers approximately four million. The US is also a major (though declining) provider of foreign assistance to the Caribbean, and the Trump Administration has sought to scale back its assistance even further.
However, the Caribbean region’s geopolitical significance to Washington has diminished since the end of the Cold War, and so has the level of development assistance in recent years. The US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act, which had bi-partisan congressional support, was passed in 2016 and signed into law under the then Obama administration as Washington’s attempt to re-engage with the Region. A multi-year Strategy, as required under the Act, was published in 2017.
So, what may US-China trade tensions mean for the Caribbean?
It is still too early to tell whether there will or has been any economic fall-out from the US-China tariff war so far on Caribbean economies. Most Caribbean countries are services-dependent making them generally more insulated from direct fall-out from the tariff hikes on global goods supply chains. Commodities-based economies, however, might suffer from softening commodities prices due to reduced Chinese demand.
President Trump’s calculation may be that a trade war would be more damaging to China’s economy than to the US since it exports more to the US than viceversa. This gives Beijing less American imports on which it could levy tariffs. An already slowing Chinese economy would be further weakened by reduced American demand for its products.
One possible negative consequence of any severe downturn in the Chinese economy may be a reduction in Beijing’s economic largesse in the region. But, the US economy may not be immune either. Though the US economy grew 4.2% in the last quarter and unemployment is low, these fortunes could be reversed due to Washington’s erratic trade policy and recent tax cuts. American farmers in key states are already warning about the possible impact of the tariff hikes. A downturn in the US economy could have a ripple effect on Caribbean economies, especially those dependent on US tourist arrivals. It is also worth pointing out that China is the US’ largest creditor, with a stockpile of over US$1 trillion worth of US Treasury securities. Beijing may see this as a source of leverage in this economic war, but a mass sell-off by China of its US debt could also backfire.
Another possible channel of impact for Caribbean countries could be in the financial markets. Spooked by these trade tensions, investors may revert to less risky investment options, which may make bonds issued by emerging economies, like those in the Caribbean, less attractive, and also affect currency markets. Additionally, any downturn in the global economy precipitated by softening global demand due to the rising trade tensions and reduced investor confidence could have a ripple effect on the small open economies of the Caribbean. In its recently released Interim Economic outlook, the OECD warned that new restrictive trade measures were already impacting global trade flows, resulting in a slowdown in global trade volume growth in the first half of 2018.
An upside to the US-China trade tensions, and this may already be playing out, is that Chinese exporters, faced with these high tariffs in the US market, will be looking at alternative markets for their goods. In light of Washington’s anti-China stance, Chinese firms may also seek out more investment-friendly climates in which to invest. In this case, the Caribbean also hypothetically stands to benefit.
It should be noted as well that China increasingly sees itself as having similar interests to the Caribbean, and also as an ally to the region in multilateral fora. This week the Chinese government noted that it plans to step up its multilateral cooperation with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), to help protect the integrity of multilateral institutions which have been increasingly under attack from the current unilateral stance taken by the Trump administration. WTO reform is one area in which China and the Caribbean could potentially collaborate, although China’s status as a developing country is one of the sore points for some WTO members, including the US.
There may also be greater opportunities for Caribbean countries to meaningfully increase exports to China. However, this is easier said than done. Caribbean firms looking to export to, or invest in China, will need to overcome barriers to market access and penetration, which are not just legal/regulatory in the form of non-tariff barriers, but also linguistic and cultural.
One way in which these barriers may be mitigated is by tapping into those persons who have knowledge of the Chinese market and culture. A growing number of Caribbean nationals have benefited from Chinese government scholarships. These persons not only speak the language, but know the culture and may have built up lasting contacts there. They could be employed as trade and investment liaisons in their countries’ diplomatic missions in China and their expertise used during trade shows to China. Local chambers of commerce, trade and investment promotion agencies, and individual firms looking to scope out the Chinese market, should also view these persons as useful sources of insights on the Chinese market and sources of contacts for exploring possible joint ventures and partnerships as market entry strategies.
Notwithstanding, it is still too early to state definitively what impact the current US-China trade tensions will have for the Caribbean region. As such, Caribbean leaders and the business community should continue to monitor the situation closely, looking for ways to mitigate any possible channels of impact, but also areas where opportunities may arise.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.