The closing of 2021 brought with it a historic moment in British colonial history: Barbados lowering the Royal Standard flag for the last time, thereby ending almost 400 years of formal relationship with the British monarchy.
Barbados is now a republic with a president as head of state, not Queen Elizabeth II (who remains the figurehead of 15 other countries, including the UK). At the handover ceremony in late November, Prince Charles gave a short, awkward speech while attendee Rihanna was formally declared a national hero – the new queen of Barbados, if you will.
Within the Commonwealth, Barbados’s bold decision is the first of its kind in many decades, and it was, for all intents and purposes, completely symbolic since the country has been independent of the UK for 56 years (albeit with Queen Elizabeth as its ceremonial head of state).
Numerous factors lie behind the move, among them vast support within Barbados for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. However, critics, royalists and Sino hawks have given undue emphasis to the role of China, demonising Beijing while simultaneously belittling Barbados’s agency – in other words, an ugly cocktail of fearmongering and geopolitical mansplaining.
Take, for example, the reaction of Henry Bolton, leader of the UK Independence Party between 2017 and 2018, who tweeted: “Barbados is now a republic. The Queen is no longer the head of state. This is a result of China pouring £bns into the Caribbean, including into the Barbadian army. Britain’s timid foreign policy and neglect of the Commonwealth is strengthening China and undermining global stability.”
Why breaking from Blighty is justified for Barbados
Although there are legitimate grounds to fear Chinese influence around the world (more on this later), let’s not forget the historic and ethical factors underpinning Barbados’s constitutional independence.
Where to start? How about the UK’s appalling role in slavery across the Caribbean, something that Prince Charles rightly mentioned in his speech. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, more than ten million Africans were shackled into the Atlantic slave trade by European nations, with the UK spearheading the business. Most of those who survived the brutal boat journey were put to labour on plantations across the Americas.
This gross history of subjugation hangs over the UK’s relationship with Barbados and many other Commonwealth countries. Other than general apologies over the decades, the UK has done little to atone for its unconscionable crimes in the Caribbean. Barbados’s desire to break away from this awful past was galvanised by the BLM movement in 2020, especially the wave of iconoclasm that reverberated across North America, Europe and beyond.
In mid-2020, following new rounds of apologies from financial, political and religious institutions across the UK, the Caribbean states said, once again: ‘Sorry is not enough!’, calling on those who benefitted from slavery, such as Lloyd’s of London, to go further than apologies and fund more Caribbean development.
With all of this in mind, Barbados’s 2021 decision to drop colonial vestiges such as the British monarchy is a small but historic moment of empowerment for the nation, another step towards its recovery from crimes against humanity. As such, the very least Britons can do (especially those from more privileged ethnic backgrounds) is have the dignity to applaud Barbados’s decision, not depreciate it by focusing on China. Of all the nerve.
Such dignity and tact, however, has very much been lacking. Dozens of headlines, especially from publications on the right of the political spectrum, have turned Barbados’s moment of independence into a case of Chinese kidnapping – the twisted irony is not lost. Even one Bloomberg article went with the title: ‘Barbados splits from the Queen, trading one empire for another‘.
Responding to such audacities, the Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley told a very ill-prepared BBC: “For you to focus on China in the Caribbean without recognising the role that China is playing in Europe or the North Atlantic countries is a bit disingenuous, and really reflects that we are seen as pawns, regrettably, rather than a country with equal capacity to determine our destiny.”
It would not be surprising at all if the coming decades sees Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Jamaica, Belize and Papua New Guinea follow Barbados’s example in determining their destiny and turning the page on colonial traditions.
So what of China’s growing influence in the Caribbean?
The past decade has seen Chinese money fly into the Caribbean at breakneck speed, much as it has flown to most parts of the developing and developed world. In fact, since 2013, $6bn has been pumped into the region.
Like many countries, including many in the EU, Barbados opted into China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), Beijing’s nine-year-old strategy of building infrastructure (and influence) around the world. China has invested almost £500m into Barbadian roads, homes, sewers and a hotel, according to the American Enterprise Institute. Others put that stock figure lower, but in any case, these are huge sums, some of which have also gone towards the Barbadian army and educational facilities.
In the aforementioned BBC interview, Mottley drew on the fact that Barbados established relations with China back in 1977, “so to suggest that we are now seeking to ingratiate ourselves with China, means that you don’t know where we have come from and what we are doing. China is a global power, and for us not to have a relationship with them […] would be foolish.”
That said, there are some natural concerns surrounding Chinese funding. Beijing, after all, operates an authoritarian government with very different values to liberal democracies – let’s not forget ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide of Muslim minorities across the country. So, as an ideological competitor with unclear geopolitical intentions, it is understandable that Western superpowers such as the US view China’s external influence, pioneered by the BRI, with trepidation – especially when it is closer to home in the Caribbean or the EU.
Little wonder, therefore, that in his first public speech as head of MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence agency, Richard Moore accused China of setting “debt and data traps” across the world. Moore was tapping into the now pervasive narrative, promulgated by the Trump administration, of the ‘Chinese debt trap’, traps that lead to territorial concessions.
However, other than China’s 2017 seizing of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, after the country was unable to pay the debt for its redevelopment, there is little evidence of Chinese land-grabbing among the thousands of the BRI projects it has undertaken. Even the oft-cited example of Hambantota is more nuanced than a ‘predatory China bullying poor old Sri Lanka’. Similarly, 2021 saw many reports of Beijing seizing Uganda’s only international airport due to unpaid debts – something that has not actually happened.
Take a balanced view on China (and provide better alternatives)
On the other hand, the BRI should not be lionised. Research in 2021 revealed that China’s hold over low-income countries through opaque contracts, most of which relate to large-scale infrastructure projects that also create good conditions for corruption and unfavourable terms (in and for the host nation). Meanwhile, BRI projects also have a chequered environmental record.
The point, therefore, is simply that BRI projects are not all good or all evil, unlike so much of the anti-China rhetoric that has proliferated over the past five years from ‘the West’. Similarly, to a degree, IMF debt burdens across the developing world carry both positives and negatives for the host nations, a point made to me very well by Klisman Murati, founder and CEO of Pareto Economics.
So, whether a Chinese or US creditor, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The difference is that China opened a cheap lunch canteen long before anyone else. Unlike other superpowers, the BRI has successfully injected vast sums of money towards much-needed infrastructure development across the developing world. In the void left by British and Western neglect, countries such as Barbados have taken up the Sino offer, attracted to the speed and unconditionality of capital from China.
Chinese money has been gushing for the past decade, spewing soft power. Meanwhile, the US has been sitting on its laurels, the EU has done a lot of talking, and the UK has been licking the wounds of its crumbling empire. That Great Britain has been asleep at the wheel is evidenced by the fact that China has far more bilateral trade deals across the globe, even within the Commonwealth, than Westminster. The fact that post-Brexit Britain has not focused more on the $14.6trn (£10.7trn) Commonwealth economy, encompassing 53 nations, is nothing but a blunder.
The West needs to pull up its socks, not sit around dishing out anti-Chinese rhetoric that only fuels a Cold War-esque, zero-sum game between ‘us’ and China, while simultaneously blaming and patronising small countries such as Barbados for ordering Chinese takeouts.
When the BBC asked Mottley why she had been so vocally supportive of warming relations with China, Mottley retorted that she is complimentary of all sides: British, American, Canadian and Chinese. “People who believe that, because we want to be friendly with China that means we are [their] pawn, tells us what they think about us in the first place,” she said. “We are capable of being friends of all and satellites of none.” Mottley also drew on the hypocrisy of Western superpowers questioning large sums of Chinese money to Barbados when they themselves conduct huge amounts of trade and investment with China.
Barbados is not in Communist hands because it renounced the Queen and took some Beijing money. Let’s not forget that the West remains the primary source of investment to Barbados, while the new republic is still part of the Commonwealth.
This episode of Barbadian drama is evidence of just how polarised Western narratives have become around China. Not every BRI project is a faustian pact with the devil. Get over it and just provide the developing world with better options. Until the past six months, there was literally no real Western alternative to BRI. Let’s see if Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ programme will change that, alongside the EU’s Global Gateway and the UK’s recently announced $12.2bn British International Investment fund. In any case, these should not be seen as an ‘antidote’ to the BRI, but rather as well-intentioned competition with Beijing.