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Barbados is trading one empire for another!

The Royal Standard flag representing the Queen was lowered for the last time in almost 400 years over Barbados, the Caribbean island that is now a republic with a president as head of state. At the handover ceremony declaring Barbados’s constitutional independence, Prince Charles gave a contrite speech and Rihanna was formally declared a national hero.
That does not sound especially dramatic. After all, her Majesty’s government has granted independence to countries representing a quarter of the world’s land mass since 1945. The British have learned to be graceful in their retreat from empire.
Barbados remains a member of the Commonwealth — the loose association of former members of the British Empire over which Queen Elizabeth presides. And many observers think it is only a matter of time until the rest of Britain’s former colonies, including sovereign states as large as Australia, follow suit with their own heads of state.
But the new republic’s accompanying tilt towards China should concern its former colonial ruler as well as the US. Barbados and Beijing may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but the warmth of their relations is a miniature case study for the projection of Chinese influence across the world. Both Britain and the US haven’t paid enough attention.
For all its talk of post-Brexit global ambitions, the British government has failed to invest in the Commonwealth’s soft power. China, meanwhile, has ploughed hundreds of billions of dollars into Commonwealth countries in recent years.
First Jamaica and now Barbados have been entangled in China’s global Belt and Road initiative to invest in infrastructure and extend its influence. Since 2013, $6 billion has been pumped into Uncle Sam’s Caribbean backyard — many of whose island states are financially wobbly and prone to ruinous extreme weather events.
Barbados’s left-wing government seems happy with its new friend, but the new republic should be wary of swapping the purely symbolic imperial figurehead of the Queen for a deeper servitude to Beijing.
Many countries have neglected the small print in their agreements with China at their peril. In return for a shiny new port, athletics stadium, airport or railway line, the recipient country offers territorial collateral. Failure to repay on schedule results in a land grab. No transfer of skills is included in the package either, creating further dependency on China.
In 2017 Sri Lanka surrendered a 99-year lease on the port of Hambantota to China after being unable to pay the debt for its redevelopment. In Uganda, China has been accused of trying to seize the international airport it has built after a squabble over the terms.
The British Empire builders of the 19th century, who secured bases for the Royal Navy and gobbled up vast territories following the signing of unequal treaties, would have recognised this debt-diplomacy as a key component of the Great Game. Britain and America are belatedly waking up to the threat. In his first public speech as boss of MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence agency, Richard Moore accused Beijing of trying to lure nations into “debt and data traps.”

—Bloomberg

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