HOW SAFE IS CHINESE INFRASTRUCTURE? A BIG QUESTION FOR THE CARIBBEAN
A CDN feature by Ricardo Blackman | CDN Barbados
China leads the world in infrastructure investment. In Africa, for example the Chinese build more infrastructure than any other country (foreign and African). Chinese banks are financing billions of dollars in new loans and packages and other deals to build badly-needed infrastructure across the continent and Chinese companies are doing most of the engineering and construction work.
Between 2009 and 2014, the Chinese signed $328 Billion in construction projects in Africa, an average of $54 Billion a year.
But even though the Chinese are evidently making an enormous contribution to Africa’s infrastructure development, there is still a pervasive perception that Chinese-built roads, bridges and other construction projects are of poor quality.
Continuous reports of Chinese made roads that quickly fall apart in Ethiopia, hospitals built by Chinese contractors in Angola that never opened due to cracks, and a $10 Million Chinese-built bridge in Western Kenya that collapsed two weeks before it could have been inspected by President Uhuru Kenyatta, have come to dominate many people’s perceptions of the quality of work provided by the Chinese.
Is this a true reflection of the building quality and reliability of Chinese construction work?
This is the question that could be very much on the lips of authorities in the Caribbean where China has been making significant investments, as the country seeks to give Beijing a strategic stronghold on the doorstep of the United States.
In September, 2016, the China Harbour Engineering Company agreed to build a mega-port in Jamaica that would make the country a hub for mammoth Chinese ships soon crossing through an expanded Panama Canal. Valued at $1.5 Billion, the port will become China’s largest in the region that has become a growing target for Chinese aid and diplomatic overtures. In Jamaica, the Chinese are also building a $600 Million four-lane highway, stretching some 67 km (41.6 miles) north to south across the country, skirting around a mountain.
This highway will initially be lined with luxury hotels, restaurants and bars. Nicknamed the Beijing Highway, after the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt reportedly turned down a chance for the road to carry his name, this project has been described by several commentators as “one of the most striking signs that the Chinese treasure ship has arrived in the Caribbean.
In return for “expertise and investment”, the Jamaican government has handed over 1,200 acres of land around the road to the Chinese, who plan to build three luxury hotels with 2,400 rooms.
Barbados has also received millions from Chinese companies to restore historical landscapes. a In March of this year, a visa waiver programme was created, aimed at opening the Caribbean paradise to an untapped market of 20 million Chinese tourists.
In many ways, the recent history of Sam Lord’s Castle tells the story of tourism in Barbados. The five-star resort was destroyed by fire in 2010 but construction has begun on a resort on the site that, when completed, will rival any other tourist destination in the world for its luxury, business and well-being facilities. China has played an important role in the Sam Lord’s re-development via a $170 million preferential loan to fund the project.
The Chinese are yet to build a bridge in the Caribbean. And excavation is still in progress at the historic Sam Lord’s in Barbados. But the authorities in the region, particularly those involved in the vital tourism industry, should be mindful of the fact that as Chinese capital flows abroad, Chinese experiences like those on the African continent should, serve as a warning to all.
Chinese firms may offer the lowest bid on an infrastructure project, but evidently Chinese production brings tremendous risks.
Those who make decisions at the highest level in the Caribbean, must leave no stone unturned in ensuring best quality materials, installations which meet global standards and a trained Chinese workforce who should not significantly outnumber locals on any project, even with the level of funding being made available to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the Caribbean by China, through the Chinese Export-Import Bank.
Chinese funds also helped to restore the sprawling Baha Mar luxury resort in The Bahamas. This PROJECT, VALUED AT SOME $2.4 Billion, was built by Chinese contractors.
Studies conducted by the International Labour Organisation and the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) show that Chinese infrastructure projects in Trinidad and Tobago, employed 12,700 people opver the last decade. And in Guyana, Chinese companies have developed the luimber, oil and gold industries.