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HomeOpinionCommentaryExamining Newsweek reporting on China's presence in Antigua and Barbuda

Examining Newsweek reporting on China’s presence in Antigua and Barbuda

By Sir Ronald Sanders

Is it ever justifiable for journalism to fan the flames of geopolitical tension? This question arises after reading Didi Kirsten Tatlow’s recent Newsweek article, which paints a distorted picture of Chinese involvement in Antigua and Barbuda.

The article, published on April 19, 2024, bore the headline: “China Building New Outpost on US Doorstep, Leaked Documents Reveal”. The headline alone is enough to raise eyebrows. It suggests a looming geopolitical confrontation, framing China’s activities in the Caribbean in starkly ominous tones.

But what does the article actually reveal? The so-called “new outpost on the US doorstep” refers to the Chinese Embassy in Antigua and a Free Trade Zone that is owned not by the Chinese government, but by private Chinese individuals. This latter point alone raises questions about the underlying narrative of the article.

A brief look at Tatlow’s background shows that she spent 39 years in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Taiwan, and she now resides in Germany. Her writings predominantly critique China’s politics and international influence.

The sensational nature of her headline is clear. It screams “Leaked Documents Reveal,” yet the content refers to “Chinese-run special economic zone” that turns out to be a private enterprise, not a state-run operation. This is akin to labelling any business operated by a US national overseas as a “US-run” operation – a misleading comparison at best.

By emphasizing the strategic significance of the location of the Free Trade Zone as near an Antigua and Barbuda military base (which it is not) and linking it to the government of China (which it isn’t), the article wrongly attributes actions to China and frames them as potentially militaristic.

Furthermore, it fails to mention that the Free Trade Zone’s establishment and operational scope, debated and approved by Antigua and Barbuda’s legislature – including opposition representatives – in 2015 and later amended in 2021, was fully transparent and published in the State’s Official Gazette.

On other aspects of the characterization of China’s relationship with Antigua and Barbuda, the Newsweek article is not just evocative but also shapes a narrative which casts China’s diplomatic presence in a suspicious, almost nefarious light.

The choice of phrases like “black-clad” to describe a Chinese security guard at the Embassy and referring to the Embassy as a “fortress” connotes isolation, impregnability, and a military-like presence, which can enhance perceptions of a secretive or defensive operation rather than a normal diplomatic facility. In fact, the Chinese Embassy in Antigua is no more large, guarded or enclosed than the US Embassy in Barbados.

Beyond just emotive language, the article employs selective fact presentation that further skews perception. The mention of the US “shuttering” its Embassy in 1994 and “relocating” to Barbados implies a strategic shift prompted by recent events. However, the US has maintained an Embassy in Barbados since 1966, well before Antigua and Barbuda established diplomatic relations with China in 1983.

The terms used to describe geopolitical spaces, such as turning Antigua from America’s “backyard” into China’s “front yard”, imply a possessive and competitive dynamic between the US and China, while, in reality, Antigua and Barbuda fiercely safeguards its nationhood and identity.

The article uncritically accepts a claim by an Antiguan opposition politician that Antigua and Barbuda has ‘traded its sovereignty,’ suggesting a loss of autonomy due to its engagement with China. This portrayal frames the relationship as a surrender rather than a partnership. However, it’s important to note that Antigua and Barbuda’s loan agreements with China are purely financial and do not impose any political conditions. Additionally, and in fairness, it is noteworthy that the same politician was part of a previous government that entered into agreements with China.

The use of this term, “Listening Post” in describing the activities suspected to be conducted at the Chinese Embassy conjures images of espionage and surveillance, increasing the sense of threat. This choice of language is an attempt to influence the reader’s emotional response to the information, steering perceptions towards seeing China’s involvement in Antigua and Barbuda as ominous or threatening.

Yet, the Article itself discloses that the US Department of Defence agency, SOUTHCOM, which is based in Florida and has responsibility for providing US contingency planning, operations, and security cooperation for Central and South America and the Caribbean, said it had not identified technologies such as satellite “reference stations” at the Chinese Embassy that would equip it as a “listening post”.

Of course, Antigua and Barbuda is not the only country in the Caribbean in which the Government of China and Chinese businessmen have partnered, nor is it the biggest beneficiary of Chinese loans. Further, the largest private sector investors in Antigua and Barbuda are US companies and nationals; not Chinese. US nationals also represent the largest number of tourists and residents who are welcome to the country. These are facts not considered in the Newsweek article.

Antigua and Barbuda, has no greater obligation by treaty or agreements to China than to the US, the EU, the UK or anywhere else. And, while its development partnership with China is greatly valued, it also happily enjoys a high level of cooperation with the US on a range of issues that are vital to human rights, the fight against trafficking in persons and drugs, freedom, security and curbing the impact of Climate Change.

The Newsweek article itself admits that the US State Department says, “the US and Antigua and Barbuda maintain strong and historic ties, with ongoing robust cooperation in regional security initiatives aimed at countering firearms trafficking and crime, as well as other efforts in climate and development”. The two countries also enjoy a high level of collaboration on issues of human rights and political freedom at the United Nations and the Organization of American States, and, at the people-to-people level, a very long, and highly-valued intertwined relationship.

Thus, while journalistic inquiry remains a cornerstone of a free society, it must strive to present a balanced context and respect the sovereignty of the nations involved, thereby fostering a well-informed and discerning public.

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