Desperate for economic growth, Jamaica seemed to have found its panacea in Asian financial giant China, judging from the news coming out of the Chinese capital, which has been hosting Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and her high-level delegation this week.
China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) parent company of China Harbour Engineering Company which has a number of ongoing infrastructure projects in Jamaica, says it intends to establish a hub using the island as a platform to spread its economic wings and promote its ambitions throughout the region. It also announced that it will change its status from contractor to investor.
Chinese investment in the region soared to US$23 billion last year. But they want more. There is even talk about the Chinese building a rival to the Panama Canal in Nicaragua as well as a trans-shipment port here.
China and Jamaica have also signed agreements on technical cooperation, infrastructure construction and education. Additionally, the leaders have pledged to increase cooperation on addressing climate change and the environmental challenges faced by the region.
Dogged by concerns about transparency, corruption and crime and violence, Jamaica has had a hard time attracting the kind of direct foreign investment that would ensure increased employment and greater prosperity for her people. But the Chinese are awash with cash and they are anxious to leverage their advantage in the region.
Even so, the Chinese leadership was not shy in raising the issue of violence and cited, challenges faced by its nationals who do businesses here. And even while these discussions were going on, there are reports that Chinese businessmen were the subject of a daring robbery in Kingston. The Police have, so far, not given any indication of how best it could insulate these business people from the marauding gangs that would prey on them.
An expression by Chinese leader Li Keqiang that the relationship between China and Jamaica would move at the speed of a lightning "bolt" should not be taken lightly. This could be interpreted as a reference the fact that many development projects have been swathed in red tape enough to utterly frustrate investors. Mrs Simpson Miller was being alerted to that fact and, hopefully, the message was not lost on the delegation.
Chinese investors will bring with them large capital inflows to undertake the infrastructure work they have proposed. However, the data will show that sometimes supposedly benevolent investors like the Chinese are not often celebrated for their social or environmental responsibility in the communities where they operate.
Take the matter of the proposed Goat Island hub. The area which has been identified by the Chinese as ideal for the project is in fact, a protected area. While environmentalists gear up for battle to prevent any encroachment on the area, how will the Government manage this emerging controversy?
Details of the various agreements signed with China have not yet been revealed, but If we agree with the economic thinkers that development is a process of diversifying an economy, the Jamaican Government should be seeking to ensure that Chinese business partner with locals to produce value-added innovation that would stimulate the manufacturing sector.
At least that would be a step in the direction of balancing trade between Jamaica and China, which stood at US$755 million last year.
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