Does China Have Plans of Building a Military Presence in America’s Backyard?

Is China building military bases in the Caribbean?

Lawrence Franklin, a former USAF Reserve Colonel Military Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Israel and contributor at the Gatestone Institute, argues that China “seems to be implementing a multidimensional strategy in the Caribbean, reaping economic, political and potentially military gains a few miles offshore the United States” as a means of spreading its influence in America’s backyard.

This echoes a similar strategy to what’s taking place in the South China Sea where China is annoyed by the U.S. presence within its traditional sphere of influence. As a result, it has responded by militarizing islets in the South China Sea.

Curiously, China previously promised not to militarize these artificial islands but ended up not keeping its worf. Similar promise-breaking was evidenced with the matter of Hong Kong, which was originally agreed to have autonomy until 2047. However, China again decided to not honor its agreement by stripping the city of its autonomy and directly incorporating it within its jurisdiction this year.  Back in July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “Hong Kong will be another communist-run city under China’s strict control” in response to this move.

Based on China’s recent behavior, agreement compliance is not one of its fortes and it shows that it’s more than willing to break the rules in its quest to become the next competing superpower. 

True to its unique path towards establishing itself as a world power since Mao Zedong passed away, China has been busy using clever diplomacy to delegitimize the Taiwanese government. Instead, it has encouraged these countries to establish ties with the mainland government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

One of China’s most notable efforts to delegitimize Taiwan came in the form of Panama’s refusal to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation in 2017. Panama is a country with significant American investment and has served as a crucial chokepoint for commerce.

Franklin argues that “Chinese shipments of military and police equipment to several Caribbean states could be developing into beachheads for future People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ‘advisory groups” in the Western Hemisphere.” 

Chinese construction projects already consist of efforts to modernize airports and seaports, which could help Chinese extend its geopolitical and military influence in the region. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe has publicly voiced China’s desire to strengthen military cooperation with Caribbean countries.

China is already notorious for financially propping up the socialist states of Cuba and Venezuela, who are known for their anti-American postures. Franklin observes that “China’s establishment of a Caribbean Belt and Road Sector is an opportunity for CCP intelligence operatives to suborn the sovereignty of Caribbean countries by luring these societies into ‘debt trap’ economic dependency on China.” In the case of Sri Lanka, the country was unable to pay back its Chinese creditors for the service of modernizing the Hambantota port. As a consequence, Sri Lanka has lost the port, which could potentially be repurposed for military use. 

Franklin observed that China is exploiting the current Wuhan virus pandemic by pursuing a form of  “medical diplomacy” that increases its diplomatic clout, which he detailed below:

China’s Caribbean offensive so far includes a “medical diplomacy” initiative that is providing Latin America, but especially the region’s island states, with face masks, personal protective gowns and gloves, ventilators, ambulances, and pharmaceuticals. This May, China convened a video-link conference on the COVID-19 virus at the vice-ministerial level with the nine Caribbean countries that have diplomatic relations with Beijing: Antigua, Barbuda, Barbados, the Bahamas, Dominica, Granada, Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Franklin continued outlining how China positioned itself in the region during a time when a pandemic is ripping through the entire globe:

China’s dominant role as a world leader in the production of pharmaceuticals and medical devices is, as presumably intended, enabling the Chinese to garner considerable good will in the region. China has already delivered 30,000 virus test kits to Jamaica and at least 100,000 protective masks to Cuba as well as about 100 ventilators to the Dominican Republic. China also has built hospitals in Dominica, St. Kitts, Barbados and Trinidad, as well as a children’s hospital in Jamaica. Throughout the COVID-19 virus epidemic, China has also donated medical supplies to around 15 Caribbean states.

Chinese investors are actively injecting millions of dollars into construction projects that are in tourist-related sectors. Chinese state-backed construction companies are setting up hotel resorts in the Bahamas, Guyana, and Barbados. Although these projects are innocuous in nature,  the bigger concern for the  U.S security establishment is the present seaport expansion project taking place in the port of Kingston, Jamaica, in addition to the port at Freeport, Bahamas. The latter could potentially give China a new base of operations less than 100 miles off the US coast.

Some of China’s other port projects include Cuba’s ports of Santiago and Mariel, along with the port of Berbice in Guyana. The Cheddi Jagan international airport in Guyana also has strong military implications. This facility once served as the site of U.S. Air Force military operations during World War II. Franklin pointed out that “with its runway of over 10,000 feet, it is capable of hosting Chinese military jet aircraft.” But as Franklin explained, there are “disagreements over the terms of the original contract signed in 2011 are a source of tension between the Chinese contractor and the usually pro-Chinese Guyanese government.” On the raw material front, China also is interested in having access to raw materials such as bauxite from Jamaica and offshore oil close Guyana.

China has become infamous for its use of soft power via its Confucius Institutes. These institutes serve as propaganda arms for the CCP and help it craft a positive image abroad. In the Caribbean region, there are 10 Confucius Institutes in countries such as Antigua and Barbuda, Suriname, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. Confucius Institutes usually spread pro-CCP narratives, which usually attack Taiwan and consider it a part of China. There is speculation that the Confucius Institute in Suriname, a country which has one of the largest overseas Chinese populations in that region, may be tapping into that diaspora for recruiting agents. 

China’s diplomatic efforts in the region appear to be paying off. In 2018, the Dominican Republican broke its diplomatic ties to Taiwan, largely for the purposes of gaining economic benefits from China. The aspiring East Asian superpower is using the carrot of economic development to compel Latin American countries to diplomatically isolate Taiwan.

Franklin fears that China will try to recreate a 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis of sorts, where Chinese military assets could be going to head-to-head with American military assets:

Were China to establish a beachhead in the Caribbean, the US could be faced with a dark replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. China could insist that the US reduce, or entirely withdraw, its considerable military force structure in the Western Pacific Ocean, in exchange for a draw-down of PLA assets in the Caribbean — or any other bargain it dreamed up.

Indeed, the Chinese pose a unique challenge. The U.S. should make it clear that a Chinese military presence in the Western Hemisphere is a no-go. However, it should remove the overwhelming majority of its bases abroad and focus exclusively on defense of the Western Hemisphere and boosting ties with its partners in the region through trade, intelligence sharing, and security cooperation.

Additionally, China can be checked with minimal American presence by building solid balancing coalitions consisting of countries such as Australia, India, Japan, and even Russia to stop potential Chinese overreach. On the domestic front, the U.S. should shut down all Confucius Institutes and severely limit migration from China. 

China is playing an unconventional game, which requires the U.S. to take unconventional approaches to challenging its rise.

 

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