The U.S. has long enjoyed hegemony over the 2.7-million sq km Caribbean basin. But whether Washington likes it or not, Beijing is showing that it too wants a piece of the pie.
MEXICO CITY — China's geostrategic expansion toward the Caribbean Sea says a lot about the deeper interests feeding tensions between the world's biggest players. We see, most notably, how the United States, the hegemonic power of our region, is squared off against China and the Russian Federation, two emerging powers determined to challenge U.S. preeminence in the Caribbean and thus redraw the map of regional geopolitics in the early 21st century.
"In our infancy, we bordered upon the Atlantic only; our youth carried our boundary to the Gulf of Mexico; today, maturity sees us upon the Pacific," U.S. strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote in 1890. Nearly 130 years later, his statement remains relevant, and imperial disputes over distant possessions or islands are still crucial to U.S. foreign and defense policies.
China's ascent through strategic alliances has not, therefore, gone unnoticed in Washington. One such alliance is with Russia, in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. If this were to prove resilient, it could become a veritable obstacle to America's expansion-and-control plans worldwide. It would force the United States to boost spending and investments at strategic points in the world, including the Caribbean, where it will want to maintain an active presence.
In this context, China's ascent is renewing the importance of the Caribbean and may turn it into an authentic, geopolitical pivot within the century.
A paradise of strategic importance — Photo: Pablo García Saldaña
Chinese interests regionally revolve around a number of countries and islands bordering the 2.7-million square kilometer basin. This stretch of sea linked to the Atlantic includes territories administered by the European Union, such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, or French Guyana, as well as islands considered tax havens. In the cases of the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, their geostrategic value lies in their farming and food production, while Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, and Venezuela are important for oil and gas.
China's ascent is renewing the importance of the Caribbean and may turn it into an authentic, geopolitical pivot within the century.
In addition to the sea's vast natural resources, the Chinese also have their eyes on several small islands and states with votes in the United Nations. Closer ties with those islands could help boost Beijing's global influence. The Caribbean is therefore again becoming a focus and corridor of human activities, as seas like the Mediterranean were throughout history. It illustrates the mobile nature of geopolitical axes over time, in keeping with the shifting rivalries of major powers and the directions in which they project their strength and aspirations.
In this context, it's worth considering the position of Mexico as a country adjacent to the United States and located at the very heart of the basin. Its geographical position, proximity to the United States, and colonial past could give it a pivotal role along both the North-South and East-West axes, although, this time around, we shouldn't expect to see galleons on the horizon like in the days of Hernán Cortés, as China is envisaging other ways of sailing to this side of the world.
China has already "landed," for example, in Panama, where the government broke ties with Taiwan and recognized the People's Republic as the "Chinese government." The result, needless to say, was closer Chinese-Panamanian relations. Expect more such moves as China seeks to expand its presence and influence in the so-called "American Mediterranean."