China putting the squeeze on The Bahamas; Your country may be next...
By Anthony L. Hall
The Bahamas is having a precedent-setting dispute with China over a development agreement that calls for Chinese men to comprise the vast majority of workers on a $2.5 billion project (Baha Mar) that China is funding.
(FYI: Baha Mar is to comprise six hotels with approximately 3,500 rooms and condominiums, a 100,000-sq-ft casino, 200,000-sq-ft of convention space, twenty acres of beach and water parks, an 18-hole golf course, and a 60,000-sq-ft retail village. Just what the already overdeveloped island of New Providence needs...)
Specifically, China is demanding that this small Caribbean nation issue permits for 8,150 foreign workers, which would amount to 71% of the labor force needed for this project; notwithstanding that The Bahamas is teeming with unemployed men (and women) who are willing and able to do the work.
Of course, for over a decade now, China has been buying up influence throughout the Caribbean to enable it to exercise its economic, political, and, perhaps, even military power to further its national interests without question... let alone challenge. And nothing demonstrated its modus operandi in this respect quite like the way it allegedly bribed (or attempted to bribe) every nation in the region to sever ties with Taiwan: almost all of them, including The Bahamas, duly complied.
But the leaders of every one of these nations knew, or should have known, that, sooner or later, China would seek to use its influence in ways that were inimical to their national interests. And, lest anyone thinks I’m making too much of this, here’s the alarm I felt compelled to sound (again) earlier this year -- in a February 19 commentary entitled World beware: China calling in (loan-sharking) debts. In this case, China was having a dispute with the most powerful nation on earth, the United States, over its relationship, not with Taiwan or any other country, but with a powerless Buddhist monk, the Dalai Lama:
“This episode should serve as a warning to all countries around the world that are not just lapping up China’s largesse, but are heralding it as a more worthy superpower than the United States. Because if the Chinese can spit such imperious and vindictive fire at the US over a relatively insignificant matter like [President Obama] meeting the Dalai Lama, just imagine what they would do to a less powerful country in a dispute over a truly significant matter.
“I anticipated that the Chinese would be every bit as arrogant in the use of their power as the Americans. But I never thought they would use it for such a petty cause. In point of fact here, in part, is how I admonished countries in the Caribbean and Latin America in this respect almost five years ago [in a February 22, 2005 commentary entitled “China buying political dominion”]:
‘What happens if China decides that it is in its strategic national interest to convert the container ports, factories, and chemical plants it has funded throughout the Caribbean into dual military and commercial use? Would these governments comply? Would they have any real choice? And when they do comply, would the US then blockade that island -- the way it blockaded Cuba during the missile crisis? Now, consider China making such strategic moves in Latin America where its purportedly benign Yuan diplomacy dwarfs its Caribbean operations. This new Cold War could then turn very hot indeed...’
“It clearly does not bode well that China has no compunctions about drawing moral and political equivalence between its beef with the US over the Dalai Lama and the US’s beef with it over internet espionage, unfair trade practices, and support for indicted war criminals like President Bashir of Sudan. Because irrational resentment in a regional menace like North Korea is one thing; in a global power like China it’s quite another.”
This brings me back to the dilemma in which The Bahamas now finds itself. To his credit, though, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham seems determined not to sell out his own people quite as blithely as The Bahamas sold out the Taiwanese. For here’s the defiant note he sounded only this week:
"We told the China State Construction Engineering Corporation from the first time we saw them more than a year ago that it was not possible to have that number of foreign workers on a job site with the Bahamian content being so low. Nothing has changed. We've been telling them that for more than a year. It appears that some people either don't take us seriously or they apparently think that we are so desperate that we will do whatever we are asked to do. But our strength is not weakened." (The Nassau Guardian, October 20, 2010)
As we used to say in the schoolyard, “them is fighting words”. It’s just too bad that Ingraham’s principled stand is being undermined by media speculation in The Bahamas that he’s taking it, not to further the interests of the Bahamian people, but to preserve the veritable tourism monopoly now being enjoyed by another foreign developer, Kerzner International.
Never mind that Kerzner’s Atlantis resort happens to be the country’s largest private employer; or that the Baha Mar agreement is fraught with all kinds of other provisions that make a mockery of The Bahamas’s national interests.
More to the point, whatever personal benefits Ingraham may derive from his evidently cozy relationship with Kerzner, there’s no gainsaying the principle at issue; namely, that no matter the developer or financier, the percentage of local to foreign workers on all development projects should be at least 70:30; i.e., in favor of local workers, not the other way around.
It would be one thing if this untenable percentage of foreign workers that China is attempting to impose were limited to the construction period. But we Caribbean natives are now painfully aware that developers have enjoyed such adhesive leverage in negotiations with our government officials that provisions allowing them to stack permanent staff positions with mostly foreign workers as well have become rather boiler plate.
This is why Ingraham’s challenge to China is so precedent setting. And, as the title to this commentary indicates, it behooves all leaders in our region to support, and be prepared to emulate, the stand he’s taking: for together we stand, divided we fall.
In fact, since this is now a very public dispute, I urge regional leaders to publish an open letter of support to show solidarity with Ingraham when he addresses this labor issue with Chinese officials later this month, in China no less...
Finally, to those who may have thought that China would be a more benign hegemon than the US, I offer yet another instructive cliché: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t...
October 22, 2010