On November 30, 2021, the island of Barbados parted ways with the British monarchy, thus ending their 400-year relationship. A few months later, on January 19, 2022, the incumbent government won in landslide elections. How were these events connected? And what role, if any, did China play?
The Barbadian government first revealed the clearly very popular plans to remove Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and make Barbados a republic in September 2020. In her speech, the then-Governor-General Sandra Mason – now Barbados’ first-ever president – focused solely on the relationship with the U.K., stating that it was time for Barbados to “leave our colonial past behind.” Mason framed the move as “the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving.” While this auspicious occasion was heralded by many as a “seminal moment,” others wondered if it was more about another country – China.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the U.K.’s Foreign Affairs Committee, asserted that “China has been using infrastructure investment and debt diplomacy as a means of control” in Barbados and elsewhere. According to Tugendhat, “Some islands seem to be close to swapping a symbolic Queen in Windsor for a real and demanding emperor in Beijing.” His concerns were reiterated in an article in the U.K. Sunday Times entitled “Little England? Not anymore – Barbados is becoming little China,” insinuating the Caribbean Island was merely trading one colonial master for another.
Meanwhile, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, the first woman to hold the post, in an interview with the BBC journalist Zeinab Badawi, expressed her disdain that countries such as Barbados are seen “as pawns rather than countries with equal capacity to determine our destiny.” She further remarked that “the Caribbean is no different to the entire world” in seeking to boost economic activity with China.
So who was right?
Although Barbados has one of the highest per capita incomes in the Caribbean region, as a small island the country is sorely in need of stronger, sustainable economic relationships. COVID-19 has decimated its tourism industry, leading the Barbadian government to announce plans to introduce a universal basic income in order to reduce inequality and address high levels of unemployment. And, at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, now re-elected Prime Minister Mottley called for significant new investment from development partners in green and resilient infrastructure to manage the climate impacts that countries like Barbados have not caused.
In colonial times, as the journalist and author Howard French has revealed, Barbados was an incredibly important country to the British empire. Slave-harvested sugar from the island was worth more to Britain than all of the metals stolen by the Spanish Empire in Latin America. While the relationship changed significantly post-slavery and then independence, over more recent years economic ties between Barbados and the U.K. have declined.
Take tourism as an example. Pre-COVID-19, Barbados relied on tourism for 33 percent of total employment and almost 40 percent of economic activity, and around 32 percent of the island’s over 1 million tourist arrivals were from the U.K. However, since Brexit in particular, tourism from the U.K. has reduced.
Similarly, according to WTO statistics, while in 2000 the U.K. was Barbados’ third most important export destination, a market worth $35 billion, by 2019 that figure had fallen to just under $9 billion. U.K. exports to Barbados consistently larger than imports throughout too, meaning Barbados ran a consistent trade deficit with its former colonizer. Investment (FDI) is similarly disappointing. Not only is investment from Barbados to the U.K. five times larger than the other way around (approximately $27 billion versus $5 billion), but British inflows to Barbados are insignificant versus those of others – for instance U.S. FDI stocks in Barbados are worth over $45 billion. Moreover, in terms of access to new development or the climate finance that Mottley is seeking, Barbados’ income classification has made it more difficult to access concessional loans and even grants directly from the U.K. or institutions such as the World Bank – a primary depository of U.K. multilateral finance.
In contrast, while Barbados has only had formal relations with China since 1977, and joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) just over two years ago in 2019 along with 19 other countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region, China seems to be increasingly contributing to the country’s economy. China’s investment stocks in Barbados increased from under $2 billion in 2004 to overtake the U.K.’s stocks by 2013, and in 2019 Barbados’ exports to China (mostly Hong Kong) were worth more than those to the U.K., at almost $10 billion. That said, and contrary to Tugendhat’s assertions, Chinese lending is not particularly high. Professor Avinash Persuad, Mottley’s economic advisor, recently clarified that less than 3 percent of Barbados’ $13.5 billion debt is owed to Chinese creditors.
In other words, the story of Barbados’ decision to cut ties with the British monarchy is properly viewed as part of the Barbados-U.K. relationship. It is not a story about China, unless China’s example gives a chance to reflect on why the U.K. (and perhaps others) seem so disinterested in strengthening economic relationships with countries like Barbados. The U.K. does, after all, have its 1949 version of the BRI – the Commonwealth, which Barbados today remains a member of.
Put differently, Rasheed Griffith, a Barbadian and non-resident senior fellow with the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, remarked when testifying in front of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission in May 2021, “The fundamental question should not be why is China engaging in the Caribbean. Rather, it should be why do Caribbean countries so readily seek out deals with Chinese firms?”
The assertion that China was behind Barbados’ decision to become a republic not only ignores the importance of Barbados’ own journey and its agency, but it distracts from the real demands countries like Barbados have from the U.K.’s foreign policy. While geographical, cultural, political, and historical ties matter, the case of Barbados shows they are insufficient to sustain a modern relationship. To understand why Barbadian people no longer wanted Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state, Brits need to listen to Barbados’s newly re-elected leaders – to look less at what China is doing, and more at what their own country is and isn’t doing with the small but increasingly prominent island nation.