Fri | Jan 22, 2021

Editorial | Call in Donald Tapia

Published:Wednesday | November 13, 2019 | 12:00 AM

It’s perhaps time for Kamina Johnson Smith, Jamaica’s foreign-affairs minister, to have a talk with Donald Tapia, the US ambassador. Not an informal one. Mr Tapia should be summoned to the foreign-affairs ministry, which Prime Minister Andrew Holness should instruct Mrs Johnson-Smith to do.

Mr Tapia should be given a message about where Jamaica’s foreign policy is formulated, which oughtn’t to be Foggy Bottom. Neither is it done, as the former Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) prime minister, Bruce Golding, famously declaimed during the Christopher Coke imbroglio, at Liguanea, where Mr Tapia now has offices.

In the meantime, as we previously suggested, Mr Holness should cause a major review of Jamaica’s foreign policy, taking into account global realignments, including the rise of new centres of power, as well as the interest of small countries like Jamaica have in maintaining a viable system of multilateral partnerships. Mr Holness should insist that Mrs Johnson-Smith reach out to experienced foreign policy hands to help in this exercise.

In an interview with this newspaper, published on Tuesday, Mr Tapia, recently installed as America’s top diplomat in Kingston, if not scolding Jamaica for it, made clear America’s displeasure with this country’s deepening economic relations with China.


He questioned the basis on which China has, through direct investment and loans, pumped an estimated US$2 billion into Jamaica over the past decade, mainly to build out infrastructure or to buy into critical industries, including alumina refining.

“When they go into a country, they go after two things – the minerals and the ports,” Mr Tapia said of China. “I could tell you horror stories of countries where they have taken over ports because those countries could not pay for their investment. China usually has a great propaganda story as to why it has happened.”

Mr Tapia, on the other hand, painted American aid to Jamaica, and similar countries, as acts of benevolence in promotion of human rights and democracy. He suggested that if this is forgotten and Beijing establishes a foothold, “the chickens will come home to roost”.

These sentiments are in keeping with Mr Tapia’s tweets since he arrived in Kingston. They also appear to have provided the template for the “be-wary-of-China” remarks made at a press conference in Jamaica last week by Admiral Craig Faller, the head of the US Southern Command.

When Mrs Johnson Smith meets Mr Tapia, there are a number of things she must remind him of. One of these is America’s diminished moral authority to lecture anyone on their international relations in the age of Donald Trump, who referred to states with citizens looking like the majority of Jamaicans, as “sh…hole countries”.

Jamaicans, of course, cherish their relations with the American people, as well as have great respect for the economic and scientific achievements of the United States, and for the vision and promise of its political institutions. But, as Mr Trump has demonstrated, a single individual with power and mal-intent, who harbours latent authoritarianism and white ethnocentricity, can, with the acquiescence of key stakeholders, as is the case with the Republican Party, corrupt and undermine even great institutions. After Mr Trump is gone, it will be a long time, if ever, before American politics and civic life regain their equilibrium.


In any event, Donald Trump’s notion of foreign policy and diplomacy is vulgarly short-term and transactional. He, for instance, had no qualm in abandoning the Kurds in northeastern Syria; in weakening America’s 70-year partnership in NATO; in attempting to barter military aid to Ukraine for dirt on a political opponent; in seeking to dismantle the post-war multilateral arrangements in which countries like Jamaica find some insulation; or, for no obvious reason, except, perhaps, self-interest, overturn a long-standing, bipartisan certitude of American politics: being wary of anyone who holds power in the Kremlin.

By Mr Trump’s standards, Jamaica’s arrangements with China are quite sensible. Beijing was the only game in town when foreign capital inflows dried up in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Except that Sino-Jamaica relations is the outcome of a mutually respectful approach to foreign policy that accepts differences but embraces commonalities.

Good relations with China, economic and political, don’t undermine friendship with the United States, with which Jamaica shares a neighbourhood and many other things in common. Mr Tapia can’t tell us that we can’t have both.