PM Rowley has denied the statement attributed to him by former American ambassador Joseph Mondello concerning how Trinidad and Tobago views its evolving relationships with China and the USA.

Perhaps however, the Prime Minister should have said precisely what Mondello thought he said. Trinidad and Tobago’s foreign policy today is vague. We hold on to shibboleths such as UN Declarations and resolutions on non-interference and the sovereign rights of nation-states. That’s fine, but does not go nearly far enough. There was a time when we were at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, of the law of the sea and the delineation of exclusive economic zones, and of the formation of the international criminal court.

Today, as former diplomat Terry Walker impressed on the Economic Development Advisory Board, our foreign policy position and agenda need to be defined by the careful and comprehensive articulation of our economic and commercial interests. To the extent that these interests revolve around economic diversification within a globalised world, we are yet to articulate our interests. We currently have no plan, no roadmap, and consequently our foreign policy, soi-disant, has nothing to which it can be tethered and implemented.

However, it seems clear that the USA has little interest in our economic success, nor that of our Caribbean neighbours. We have had little by way of US foreign direct investment, even in oil and gas. We do not qualify for aid. Any economic or financial support in the region is directed through the IMF, World Bank, or IDB which comes with limited appreciation of what is required for our economic growth and development. The main interest of the USA is in matters of national security, specifically interdicting the flow of drugs to the end-consumers in that country whose demand for cocaine seems insatiable.

It should occasion little surprise then that we here in Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean territories have welcomed the interest by China in our economic and commercial development, primarily through the development of our infrastructure. The Chinese have simply occupied the vacuum created by American indifference. As the Americans have awakened to the Chinese presence, and conscious of the challenge posed to American hegemony by China’s initiatives around the world, they have mounted a strident demonisation of China. Yet they could give us only Mondello, while the Chinese had posted to Trinidad and Tobago the suave, sophisticated Song Yumin, now departed, and who was no ‘wolf warrior’ but a superb practitioner of the arts of diplomacy.

America’s moral authority, waning even before Trump, has since nosedived. President Biden might assert that “America is back!”. But which America does the world want to see back? Not the America that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan post 9/11, or the America that practised rendition to and torture in Guantanamo, or the America that unilaterally withdrew from the Paris climate accord; not the America that uses the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of the US dollar to project extra-territorial power and sanction individuals; not the America whose systemic practices discriminate against people in its own country who look like us here in the Caribbean! A hegemonic America in a unipolar world order is not in the interest of Trinidad and Tobago or the Caribbean.

It is in our foreign policy interest to promote multilateralism and a multipolar world order in which America, Europe, China as the great (read, nuclear-armed) powers are respectful of the interests of the other five billion people on the planet, and do not seek to impose some American notion of “liberal democracy”, or dated notions of “civilisation” on the rest of the world, in which the voices of all nations and peoples are given due weight in matters concerning our common humanity such as climate change, and in which the historical sins of some European powers through slavery and colonialism are acknowledged, and reparations made by addressing poverty and education in the victim countries and in their diasporas.

We should embrace China, not naively and unthinkingly or reacting like a lover spurned by America, but strategically, and deeply conscious of our own interests and the realities of international politics.

There is much work to be done. We have, first and foremost, to define our economic and commercial interests comprehensively and in detail. Beyond infrastructure, this would have to include: how innovation can be supported; what financing structures can be developed including the financing of research and development and innovation; how foreign direct or portfolio investment by Chinese firms can be tapped and in what areas; and how human capital can be developed. Together with our Caricom partners, we have to analyse China and its global foreign policy agenda and identify the best points of leverage. We will need to develop a cadre of fluent Mandarin speakers and understand Chinese culture deeply. Thereafter we will be in a position to craft a strategy for engaging meaningfully with China, as we help to promote a multipolar world order.

There would be no room for “American exceptionalism” in such a world order, but an America, reborn and chastened, would be very welcome indeed.

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