A strategic challenge for the US: China and The Bahamas
A primary focus of the Biden administration’s national security policy has been the great power relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That relationship is multifaceted. As Harvard professor and former Defense Department official Joseph Nye points out in a New York Times article, “Competition with China is a three-dimensional game. And if we continue to play two-dimensional chess, we will lose.” Nye’s three dimensions are military, economic and social, but there is an important subset to the three — regional concerns.
PRC activity in The Bahamas is an example of the three dimensions plus regional activity coalescing in a direct challenge to U.S. interests. This challenge is not theoretical; it is existential. A recent article in the Bahamian paper, The Nassau Guardian, lays it out clearly: “Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism, Investments and Aviation Chester Cooper is inviting Chinese investors to take advantage of opportunities in the tourism, agricultural and renewable energy sectors and to partner with the government on projects such as the upcoming public/private partnership (PPP) airport redevelopment project.”
Specifically, over the past dozen years, China has made a number of investments in The Bahamas, including a $30 million grant to build a national stadium; preferential loans to build a $3 billion megaport at Freeport; and $40 million to build a port off the Bahamian island of Abaco. Further, the China EXIM Bank provided over $54 million in preferential loans to build a four-lane highway and loaned nearly $3 billion to build the Baha Mar Resort. The China State Engineering Corporation purchased the British Hilton Colonial as part of a $250 million construction project.
PRC involvement in The Bahamas is not simply about its willingness to invest in the island nation. It is focused on moving The Bahamas away from the U.S. and toward China. Because of recent crises, The Bahamas, a longtime U.S. ally, is more vulnerable to PRC overtures. The Bahamas was devastated in 2019 by Hurricane Dorian. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates that the hurricane cost The Bahamas $3.4 billion, approximately one-fourth of its GDP. Adding economic insult to injury, the World Bank estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic caused an economic contraction of approximately 16.2 percent in 2020.
In addition, unemployment and poverty levels increased as a result of these two crises. It is worth noting that, according to the U.S. State Department, “Despite its World Bank designation as a high-income country, income inequality is higher in The Bahamas than in other Caribbean countries.”
There are also strategic considerations for the U.S. with The Bahamas. For example, the Coast Guard has been working with The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos for a number of years on a program countering the flow of drugs through the region. The Navy has a submarine testing center in The Bahamas. The U.S. government this year gave $5.9 million in boats and communications equipment to the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF). The Bahamian government has been supportive of U.S. policy toward Venezuela and Nicaragua at the United Nations and Organization of American States.
The threat that China poses to U.S. interests in The Bahamas was not lost on Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander, United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (USNORTHCOM). In testimony before Congress this year, he stated: “China continues to pursue an aggressive geopolitical strategy that seeks to undermine U.S. influence around the globe and shape the international environment to its advantage. In the USNORTHCOM area of responsibility, China has made deliberate attempts to increase its economic and political influence with our close partners in Mexico and The Bahamas.”
The Biden administration has shown a consistent, strategic effort to deal with the China challenge. In his recent European trip, President Biden lifted steel and aluminum tariffs that the previous administration imposed. As part of the arrangement, European Union exports would have to be entirely domestically manufactured with no inputs from China. There also was an agreement to restrict imports contingent on how much carbon is involved with their production, which would have an impact on China. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo recently announced that the U.S. would work to use European and Asian supply chains, rather than those of the PRC.
This nuanced strategy to respond to PRC global policies should include a specific response to that nation’s engagement with The Bahamas. There are a few steps that would help let The Bahamas and other allies in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America know that the U.S. appreciates the important role they play as neighbors and allies, countering PRC outreach.
USAID and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) can work with investors and aid donors to help The Bahamas to rebuild its economy. The IDB and World Bank have the resources and expertise to complement U.S. bilateral economic engagement with The Bahamas.
As Gen. VanHerck pointed out, the U.S. has strategic issues it must consider with respect to The Bahamas. Increased engagement with the RBDF, as well as increased drug interdiction engagement, would help strengthen the military side of the U.S.-Bahamian ledger.
Tourism is a primary source of income and job creation for The Bahamas. The Department of Commerce, in particular, should work with the Bahamian government to rebuild this essential part of its economy in the wake of Hurricane Dorian and the pandemic. Emphasizing creative approaches such as eco-tourism could help with this undertaking.
It has been over a decade since the U.S. has had an ambassador in The Bahamas. This sends a negative signal that the relationship is not important to the U.S., playing into the hands of China. The U.S. needs an ambassador who not only knows The Bahamas but also understands the complicated political environment of Washington, and those in the Senate holding up nominations must cease and desist. Our national security is at stake.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to continue with its policy toward the PRC by engaging The Bahamas as a counter to China’s efforts to expand its influence in the backyard of the U.S.
Patrick J. Griffin, a professor at American University, worked as an assistant to President Clinton and was secretary to the Democratic Conference in the U.S. Senate.
William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.