Martin Ivens

Barbados Splits from the Queen, Trading One Empire for Another

On Tuesday the Royal Standard flag representing the Queen was lowered for the last time in almost 400 years over Barbados, the Caribbean island that is now a republic with a president as head of state. At the handover ceremony declaring Barbados’s constitutional independence, Prince Charles gave a contrite speech and Rihanna was formally declared a national hero.

That does not sound especially dramatic. After all, her Majesty’s government has granted independence to countries representing a quarter of the world’s land mass since 1945. The British have learned to be graceful in their retreat from empire.

Barbados remains a member of the Commonwealth — the loose association of former members of the British Empire over which Queen Elizabeth presides. And many observers think it is only a matter of time until the rest of Britain’s former colonies, including sovereign states as large as Australia, follow suit with their own heads of state.

But the new republic’s accompanying tilt toward China should concern its former colonial ruler as well as the US.

Barbados and Beijing may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but the warmth of their relations is a miniature case study for the projection of Chinese influence across the world. Both Britain and the US haven’t paid enough attention.

For all its talk of post-Brexit global ambitions, the British government has failed to invest in the Commonwealth’s soft power. China, meanwhile, has ploughed hundreds of billions of dollars into Commonwealth countries in recent years.

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

Barbados’s left-wing government seems happy with its new friend, but the new republic should be wary of swapping the purely symbolic imperial figurehead of the Queen for a deeper servitude to Beijing.

Many countries have neglected the small print in their agreements with China at their peril. In return for a shiny new port, athletics stadium, airport or railway line, the recipient country offers territorial collateral. Failure to repay on schedule results in a land grab. No transfer of skills is included in the package either, creating further dependency on China.

In 2017 Sri Lanka surrendered a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota to China after being unable to pay the debt for its redevelopment. In Uganda, China has been accused of trying to seize the international airport it has built after a squabble over the terms.

The British Empire builders of the 19th century, who secured bases for the Royal Navy and gobbled up vast territories following the signing of unequal treaties, would have recognized this debt-diplomacy as a key component of the Great Game.

Britain and America are belatedly waking up to 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 harvest data that enables a “web of authoritarian control” around the world, he said.

Certainly, China plays aid diplomacy more ruthlessly than the West. Its muscle translates into votes at the United Nations Assembly and other UN bodies. The World Health Organization’s pusillanimous response to China’s suppression of news about the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan is only the most notorious instance. Despite the uproar this provoked in the West, Beijing went on to frustrate a WHO investigation into possible lab leaks of the virus from its laboratories.

Britain and the US have less success in using their leverage.

Every year since 1984 the US State Department has been obliged to present Congress with the voting record of member UN states. Its league table of voting “coincidence” at the General Assembly for 2020 reveals that China and Cuba, as you would expect, rarely voted with the American side over disputed resolutions. Jamaica and Barbados voted with the US, respectively, only 25% and 26% of the time. Ethiopia, one of the largest recipients of UK aid, sided with the US in only 22% of contested votes.

Of course, Western aid cannot be solely transactional — we have a humanitarian duty to assist the poorest people on this planet. But when does handing a blank check to your enemies represent 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 backing for his Build Back Better World proposal to help developing countries invest in infrastructure to adapt to climate change. Britain is offering up an annual 8 billion pounds to attract private investment in the effort.

Although the West doesn’t demand territorial collateral, its financial institutions insist on a commercial return which inevitably pushes up costs. Its terms are more prescriptive and intrusive. Botswana rejected a UK aid deal because it insisted on imposing its own fastidious wildlife husbandry regime.

Chinese aid comes with no obligation to meet 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 may pay off. Aid recipients like Pakistan have bilked the US in the past and may cheat their new friends too. But Beijing knows you have to pay to play. The West has been too slow to put its chips on the table.