A major focus of the Biden administration’s national security policy was the high power relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That relationship is multifaceted. Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and former Defense Department official, states in a New York Times article: “Competition with China is a three-dimensional game. And if we keep playing two-dimensional chess, we will lose.” The three dimensions of Nye are military, economic and social, but there is one important part of the three: regional interests.
The PRC’s activity in the Bahamas is an example of the three dimensions plus regional activity coalescing in a direct challenge to US interests. This challenge is not theoretical; it is existential. A recent article in the Bahamian newspaper, The Nassau Guardian, explains it clearly: “Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism, Investment and Aviation Chester Cooper invites Chinese investors to take advantage of opportunities in the tourism, agriculture and renewable energy sectors and to partner with government on projects such as the upcoming public-private partnership (PPP) airport redevelopment project.”
In particular, China has made a number of investments in the Bahamas over the past twelve years, including a $30 million grant to build a national stadium; preferential loans for the construction of a $3 billion megaport in Freeport; and $40 million to build a port for the Bahamian island of Abaco. Furthermore, China EXIM Bank extended more than $54 million in preferential loans for the construction of a four-lane highway and borrowed nearly $3 billion to build the Baha Mar Resort. The China State Engineering Corporation bought Britain’s Hilton Colonial as part of a $250 million construction project.
The PRC’s involvement in the Bahamas is not just about its willingness to invest in the island nation. It is aimed at moving the Bahamas from the US to China. Due to recent crises, the Bahamas, a longtime US ally, is more vulnerable to rapprochement with the PRC. The Bahamas was devastated by Hurricane Dorian in 2019. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates that the hurricane cost the Bahamas $3.4 billion, about a quarter of its GDP. The World Bank estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an economic contraction of about 16.2 percent in 2020, another economic insult to damage.
Moreover, as a result of these two crises, unemployment and poverty increased. It’s worth noting that, according to the United States Department of State, “despite the World Bank’s designation as a high-income country, income inequality is greater in the Bahamas than in other Caribbean countries.”
There are also strategic considerations for the US with the Bahamas. For example, the Coast Guard has been working for a number of years with the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands on a program to counter the flow of drugs through the region. The Navy has a submarine test center in the Bahamas. The US government has given $5.9 million worth of boats and communications equipment to the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) this year. The Bahamian government has supported US policy toward Venezuela and Nicaragua at the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
The threat China poses to American interests in the Bahamas was not lost on General Glen VanHerck, commander of the United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (USNORTHCOM). In his congressional testimony this year, he stated, “China continues to pursue an aggressive geopolitical strategy that seeks to undermine US influence around the world and shape the international environment to its advantage. In USNORTHCOM’s area of responsibility, China has made deliberate efforts to increase its economic and political influence with our closest partners in Mexico and the Bahamas.”
The Biden administration has shown a consistent, strategic effort to meet the Chinese challenge. During his recent European trip, President BidenJoe Biden US bishops to weigh in on whether Biden should receive Communion Congress vessels by year’s end Biden taps former New Orleans mayor Landrieu to lead infrastructure MORE steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the previous government. As part of the scheme, the European Union’s exports would have to be produced entirely domestically with no input from China. There was also an agreement to limit imports depending on how much carbon is involved in production, which would have an impact on China. Minister of Commerce Gina RaimondoGina RaimondoIn the White House, frustration with who gets to ask questions Biden marks Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery Biden hopes to turn infrastructure bill into jobs soon MORE recently announced that the US would work to use European and Asian supply chains instead of the PRC’s.
This nuanced strategy for responding to the PRC’s global policies must include a specific response to that country’s involvement in the Bahamas. There are a few steps that would help the Bahamas and other allies in the Caribbean and across Latin America to know that the U.S. understands the important role it plays as neighbors and allies in countering the reach of the PRC, appreciates.
USAID and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) can partner with investors and donors to help the Bahamas rebuild its economy. The IDB and the World Bank have the resources and expertise to complement the US’s bilateral economic relationship with the Bahamas.
As General VanHerck noted, the US has strategic issues to consider regarding the Bahamas. Greater involvement with the RBDF, as well as greater involvement in drug prohibition, would help bolster the military side of the US-Bahamas ledger.
Tourism is a primary source of income and job creation for the Bahamas. In particular, the Department of Commerce should work with the Bahamian government to rebuild this vital part of its economy in the wake of Hurricane Dorian and the pandemic. Emphasizing creative approaches such as ecotourism could help with this.
It has been over ten years since the US had an ambassador to the Bahamas. This sends a negative signal that the relationship is not important to the US and plays into China’s hands. The US needs an ambassador who not only knows the Bahamas, but also understands Washington’s complicated political environment, and those in the Senate who are holding back nominations must stop and stop. Our national security is at stake.
The Biden administration has a chance to continue its policy towards the PRC by enlisting the Bahamas as a counterweight to China’s attempts to extend its influence into the US backyard
Patrick J. Griffin, a professor at American University, served as an aide to President Clinton and was secretary of the Democratic Conference in the United States Senate.
William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and has worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.