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Thursday, February 13, 2020

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The serious threat to U.S. hegemony in the Pacific posed by China is hardly a secret.

Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, including the construction of artificial islands in the waters of the Philippines, has been an issue for several years now. Then there is the increased Chinese influence in and around American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, the three U.S. territories in the Pacific.


Until Donald Trump took office this theater nearly 10,000 miles away was at best downplayed and at worst ignored by past presidents of both parties. Now, we are seeing the same scenarios unfold much, much closer to home.

This was clearly evident at a recent meeting in Jamaica between political leaders from across the Caribbean and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Jamaican foreign minister, Sen. Kamina Johnson-Smith, applauded his presence as “a symbol of Washington’s engagement with the Caribbean.”

While the United States through the territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is, by definition, a Caribbean country, the geopolitical affairs of what used to be called the West Indies have largely been ignored since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 redirected America’s focus to the Middle East and North Africa.

China has used Washington’s long-standing benign neglect of the Caribbean to its advantage just as it did in the Pacific.

Mr. Pompeo should be commended for attending the gathering, which came after Mr. Trump hosted several regional heads of government last year at Mar-a-Lago, his so-called Winter White House. However, more can be done.

The United States should immediately upgrade its diplomatic relationships by appointing standalone ambassadors to each independent island-nation. (Several other islands are still under the subjugation of old colonial powers.)

It is no coincidence that China’s growing influence is at its strongest in some of the countries without a dedicated U.S. ambassador: Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Beijing has also used its growing influence to isolate Taiwan. Most recently, Panama and the Dominican Republic — two countries with deep connections to the United States — ceased diplomatic recognition of the Republic of China, as Taiwan formally calls itself.

Beyond ensuring a full diplomatic presence, it is time for a full court press.

After all, U.S. soft power in the region is tremendous, thanks to the over 8.7 million Americans who visit the islands every year. The potential impact of increased or decreased American tourists is significant as most of the islands have no private sector economy outside of tourism.

Beyond leveraging tourists to promote U.S. interests it is time to rethink the political relationship between the United States and the Caribbean.

Many of Mr. Trump’s critics decried his much-publicized suggestion last year that the United States acquire Greenland from Denmark. They ignored the fact that Washington has long recognized the geopolitical importance of the Danish colonial possession.

The reality is the islands of the Caribbean are just as geopolitically relevant as Greenland. This would explain why the Virgin Islands — St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas — were bought from Denmark in 1917.

Surely, some within the Caribbean would embark upon a new political relationship with the United States along the same lines with the freely associated states of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau in the Pacific. Others might even seek to become a territory, which wouldn’t be without precedent given the former territory of the Panama Canal Zone or even the Dominican Republic, which voted for U.S. annexation in 1869.

• Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.


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