For T&T engaging China, diplomacy is the easy part

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Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley was in China this week, making the case for his country as a hub for China in the Caribbean and larger Latin America. Beyond  the photo-op with President Xi Jinping, pledges of “pragmatic cooperation” and “deepening partnership”, the trip delivered some accomplishments on the margin (一特立尼达和多巴哥总理会见海航集团董事长行). Those included:

Less likely plans were also unveiled, such as:

  • Lake Asphalt providing asphalt for Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG)’s expansion of Beijing International Airport; and

  • The establishment of direct flights between China and Trinidad and Tobago.

Arguably the biggest win for the Trinidadians was the signing of an MOU bringing Trinidad and Tobago into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as its first Caribbean country. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

China is willing to integrate the Belt and Road Initiative with the development strategies of Trinidad and Tobago to enhance policy coordination and promote practical cooperation in such areas as infrastructure building, energy, finance and agriculture... It is obvious that the Latin American and Caribbean countries have also become important participants of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the rest of Latin America can also get engaged with the BRI.

However for Latin America, it is not enough to sit and wait for the BRI. Benefits come to those that are proactive, like Panama:

In 11 months, Panama has made more progress with China than Costa Rica made in 11 years of bilateral relations, or Colombia made in 38 years of diplomatic relations, said on Twitter the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Álvaro Méndez.

Panama’s active effort to engage China paid off in both establishing diplomatic relations ahead of other regional actors — like the Dominican Republic — as well as Chinese interest in funding projects. 

As companies in the DR look towards the opportunities diplomatic relations provide, the lesson is whether you are a county with long-established relationships with China — like Trinidad and Tobago — or one that has just established them — like the Dominican Republic — it is not enough to have diplomatic relations. After that comes the hard work of cultivating investors, corporates, and other partners from China that are looking at Latin America.

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