Charles de Gaulle is credited with saying that countries do not have friends, countries have interests. This means simply that a country must do whatever is necessary to thrive at best and survive at worst. Therefore, countries (governments) must be clear on their interests and understand how best to defend them. Small countries have no power to alter the world and must find a way to survive without being buffeted by geopolitical forces. To do otherwise is to court disaster.
Grenada and Panama are examples of what happens to countries that step too “far” out of line, by the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba has endured an almost complete trade embargo since 1961 for being bold enough to challenge the United States by adopting a socialist ideology and aligning itself with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990. Yet, 33 years later, Cuba, impoverished but unbending, remains subject to an embargo. Venezuela is the latest regional victim of the broad and targeted sanctions by the United States since 2014.
These examples illustrate that a small country must seek the maximum number of friends while maintaining the freedom to be a sovereign independent nation. As Lee Kuan Yew pointed out, small countries perform no vital or irreplaceable functions in the international system. To remain relevant, they must create political and economic space. Caricom countries have always understood this. For example, notwithstanding the United States embargo on Cuba, most Caricom countries have maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba. Similarly, in 1974 at the height of the Cold War, T&T established diplomatic relations with The People’s Republic of China. Caricom, established in 1973, was formed to strengthen the economies of member states to create economic space.
2023 is far removed from 1974. China has in the intervening period performed an economic miracle. By adopting a modified version of capitalism to suit its political and economic circumstances, China has become the second-largest economy in the world and Chinese companies now operate at the highest levels competing against Western firms that are deemed to be giants in their sectors.
Countries with great economic and military power have leeway in how they use soft or hard power to pursue their interests in international affairs. Soft power is the ability of one country to influence another country to pursue a particular approach. Such power is non-coercive, using cultural political values and foreign policies to facilitate change. For example, the United States often appeals to Western values in its effort to garner support for Ukraine amongst its allies in the current Ukraine war.
Hard power is characterised by more direct techniques which may be used separately or in combination. Military intervention, coercive diplomacy, and economic sanctions are examples of hard power. To exercise hard power one must have the resources or the economic means to make these actions count. We live in a world in which the Group of Seven Countries (G7), the world’s largest economically developed countries (France, Japan, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada) have economic sway and possess the capacity to use both hard and soft power.
Sanctions are a form of hard power and are used with the intent of damaging another country’s economy because the other country has adopted an unfavourable policy or decision. They can be very damaging to the target country or firms. Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, has been targeted by US sanctions. It has been accused of spying for the Chinese communist party. The effect has been to debar the company from executing contracts in G7 countries, contracts that were won in open competitive tenders with major Western governments. It is not clear if the real purpose of the sanctions was to cripple the emergence of a telecommunications giant that would challenge competing US firms, or a genuine attempt to frustrate spying.
China’s emergence as a world power is viewed as a threat to US hegemonic interests. The US pushback is demonstrated by the trade tensions between the countries. In mid-2018 then president Trump imposed a series of rising tariffs on a variety of goods imported from China. China retaliated by raising duties on US products. The US tariffs affected about $350 billion in imports from China, or about 18 per cent of the total, while China’s tariffs covered about $100 billion, or about 11 per cent, of goods imported from the US.
In 2022, the US Commerce Department issued a broad set of prohibitions on exports of semiconductor chips and other high-tech equipment to China, to strangle China’s technology sector. These tensions have spillover effects into other areas.
T&T is a friend of China, the United States, Guyana and Venezuela. Venezuela is claiming 60 per cent of Guyana as its own. T&T wants to deepen its economic ties with Venezuela through trade and access to its gas resources. T&T businesses have interests in Guyana. Venezuela is targeted by US sanctions which affects T&T’s ability to do business with Venezuela. US energy firms have interests in Guyana, T&T and Venezuela. China’s energy firms have interests in Venezuela.
The world is a complicated place and T&T’s place in it is getting more complicated. What are T&T’s best interests in these circumstances, and how should they be pursued?