Editorial | The value of Ambassador Niu
In the normal scheme of things, the comings and goings of diplomats are little-noticed, routine business, except when it used to be the arrival or departure of an American ambassador. The British, too, warranted some attention.
These days, however, it is the Chinese ambassador in Kingston who is likely to be the diplomat the Jamaican Government, without offending the Americans, will most want to keep onside. The Chinese are the largest provider of foreign capital to Jamaica either by way of direct and indirect investment or bilateral loans.
That is why the pending departure of Niu Qingbao, China's ambassador to Jamaica, after a little more than two years here, is a significant development, greeted, according to the justice minister, Delroy Chuck, "with mixed feelings" by the Jamaican Government and people. Ambassador Niu, according to Mr Chuck, speaking at a farewell function last weekend, had "truly endeared himself" to the country.
As a largely centrally planned economy where political relations and government signals influence the outward flow of investment by Chinese firms, who is Beijing's ambassador in any country is hardly to be a primary determinant to the level of capital it receives. He or she, however, can help to shape domestic attitudes to what, in many countries, is perceived to be Chinese hegemony. In Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, this is a geopolitically sensitive matter.
Ambassador Niu, in this regard, proved himself deft at his job.
The United States, which last year provided Jamaica with US$29 million in direct development assistance, used to be the principal source of aid and private capital. For much of the past decade, that has been surpassed by the Chinese.
There is no readily available overall data of the value of Chinese involvement in Jamaica, but a US$346-million loan from China's Ex-Im Bank will finance the soon-to-be-started redevelopment south coast road, from Harbour View, east of the capital, through the parishes of St Thomas and Portland. The US$64-million loan for the ongoing redevelopment of Mandela Highway is also from China, as was the US$65 million for the upgrading of the Norman Manley Highway, better known as the Palisadoes road, as well as US$21 million for the expansion of Marcus Garvey Drive and the US$4 million being spent on Barbican Road.
In addition to the gifts from the Chinese government of a conference centre in Montego Bay and a foreign ministry building in downtown Kingston, a Chinese firm, China Harbour Engineering Company, developed and has concession to the tolled US$700-million North-South Highway, while Jiquan Iron and Steel (JISCO) spent US$229 million to purchase the Alpart alumina refinery from UC Rusal and plans to spend another US$220 million on its upgrade. JISCO has also talked of investment of up to US$1.5 billion on manufacturing, shipping, and logistics facilities. A Chinese firm also owns a significant portion of Jamaica's limping sugar industry.
Much of the work on these big government infrastructure projects, as well as other large private-sector building jobs, is being done by Chinese firms, against which domestic construction companies have been unable to compete. Much of the frustration of the domestic players, exacerbated by the fears of China as hegemon, broke loudly into the open last year when Jamaican builders and designers complained that they were likely to be left out of a proposal by China Construction Company's Americas division for a US$1.6-billion redevelopment around Kingston's Heroes Circle.
Ambassador Niu's predecessors tended to shy away from such controversies, and Chinese firms operating here seemed to largely take their cue from the embassy's stance. Niu, however, brought to the job Western-style communications savvy. He was willing to explain Beijing's position in the media, opening himself to questioning. During that episode, he insisted that it wasn't China's aim "to colonise Jamaica", but to find "areas of cooperation and mutual benefit".
Hopefully, whoever replaces Niu will be similarly empowered to engage with Jamaicans and openly discuss and debate China's policies in Jamaica and the Caribbean. For, while we welcome China's investments, many of the concerns are genuine.