Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” Translation: “I fear the Grecians even when they offer gifts” – Virgil’s Aeneid Book II, line 48

As the People’s Republic of China’s world economic power continues to expand rapidly, it is being accompanied by a shrewd willingness to increase its influence on the direction of global affairs. There is a growing concern about the manner in which China has been flexing its muscles over the past few months and serving notice about its true intentions on the world stage.

On 7th March, the Philippines reported the presence of some 220 Chinese fishing boats, suspected to be manned by militia personnel, moored on the Julian Felipe Reef, located in the South China Sea, within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. China has laid claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, refusing to recognise an international tribunal’s ruling which invalidated that claim, and has gone as far as to build islands in the sea and pass a law allowing its navy to fire on foreign vessels, which it views as threats of war. Despite protests from the Philippines, China has vowed to continue “to peacefully and proactively pursue its initiatives on environmental protection, food security and freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.

Last Friday, the British Government announc-ed that it expected more than half a million people from Hong Kong to migrate to the UK this year, and over one million in total in the next five years, as they take advantage of the visa scheme which opened at the end of January. This exit route was the British Government’s response to the increasing clampdown in the former British colony by Beijing, which had introduced a wide-sweeping National Security Law last summer. Earlier this month, the UK declared that China was in “a state of ongoing non-compliance” with the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration which had been meant to guarantee a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong.  Of course, China’s response was to accuse the UK of “political manipulation.”

On 12th February, China’s National Radio and Television Administration banned the BBC World News from airing inside China. The ban was viewed as a direct response to Ofcom’s, (the UK media regulator), withdrawal of the licence for CGTN, China’s English language news channel, stating that it had filed misleading ownership statements and that it is “ultimately controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” China stated that the BBC had failed to meet the requirement for news to be truthful and fair, and accused it of damaging China’s national interests. Beijing was obviously piqued by the BBC’s report of the treatment of Uighur women in its “re-education camps,” and the questioning of the veracity of the COVID-19 figures provided by the Chinese authorities.

In the wake of China’s growing influence and ambitious global reach, the Quad – a group comprising the USA, Australia, India and Japan – held its first summit on 12th March. At the virtual meeting, US President Joe Biden told his counterparts, “We’re renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values, and free from coercion.” Although no country was named, the inference was quite clear. The Quad has pledged to supply up to one billion coronavirus vaccine doses across Asia by the end of 2022, to cooperate on maritime, cyber and security issues, climate change, and technology standards.

Last Thursday and Friday, the first high-level meeting between officials from Beijing and Washing-ton, since Biden’s election, took place in Alaska. The occasion got off to a rocky start with the trading of insults between the two sides at a pre-meeting press event. The harsh exchange of words continued at the opening session with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing the USA’s “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, economic coercion toward our allies. Each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability. That’s why they’re not merely internal matters, and why we feel an obligation to raise these issues here…”

Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party responded in kind, “I think we thought too well of the United States, we thought that the US side will follow the necessary diplomatic protocols.” He added, “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.” The director further said that the US must deal with the Chinese side in “the right way” and reiterated Beijing’s call for cooperation.

While the powers that be argue and squabble with each other over the spoils – the precious resources of developing countries – one hopes that Takuba Lodge is now closely monitoring these seesawing events with keen eyes. Its “Taiwan office” faux pas last month seemed to indicate that no attention was being paid. Though it appears that China has forgiven all as at the beginning of this month, it presented our government with 20,000 doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine; a sign of its ongoing friendship with this country. 

  It is obvious that the People’s Republic of China wants to cooperate with everyone, but, only as long as it is on its own terms and conditions, i.e. as long as its goals are the priorities. Countries entering into such collaborations should therefore exercise caution. Sri Lanka didn’t. In December 2017, under immense pressure and after months of negotiation, it signed over full control to China of its deep-water port at Hambantota, and 15,000 acres of surrounding land, for 99 years, after being unable to repay the millions in loans it should have never taken in the first instance, thus giving China control over a critical commercial and military waterway.

Guyana’s involvement with China is long and complex, and given its strategic placement in Latin America and the Caribbean, increasingly important to China. Ties between the two countries date back to the 19th century, and the present day relationship involves billions of dollars in investment by China and Chinese companies. It would be worth remembering that there is no such thing as a free lunch.