China’s Xi in Trinidad to Talk Energy, Bolster Ties


Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the tiny Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago Friday night in a historic visit to the region aimed at securing sources of energy needed by Beijing to fuel its economic growth.

China's President Xi Jinping, right, met with Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

China’s President Xi Jinping, right, met with Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

 The Trinidadian government, which also hosted a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week, billed Mr. Xi’s trip as the first ever by a president of the Asian nation to the English-speaking Caribbean.


The visit adds some luster to the Caribbean country’s standing on the world stage. Trinidad’s developed energy sector is an attractive partner for resources-hungry China, Mr. Xi said in an interview published by Chinese state news agency Xinhua.


Companies from the two countries “can go ahead with more exploration of energy cooperation in new forms and on a larger scale,” he was quoted as saying.


Trinidad welcomed the Chinese delegation, which included popular first lady Peng Liyuan, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng, at a time when the twin-island nation is seeking new markets for its liquefied natural gas, or LNG.


The U.S., its main trade partner, is undergoing its own domestic energy boom due to advances in extracting natural gas from shale rock formations. The U.S. is now seeking to become a gas exporter as early as 2015 and has cut its imports of Trinidadian LNG to a quarter from 2007 levels, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.


Last month, Trinidad opened bidding on exploration contracts for three blocs on the southern basin of the island. The Ministry of Energy is slated to put six more blocs off Trinidad’s eastern coast up for bids in June.


The $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, scheduled to be completed by 2014, is expected to provide a crucial passage to Asia for Trinidad’s LNG as China is aggressively seeking cleaner-burning natural-gas assets overseas to add to its energy mix and shift from dirtier resources like coal.


Mr. Xi’s schedule includes bilateral meetings on Saturday following a gathering with Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine told Trinidad´s Guardian newspaper on Friday that energy matters will “feature very prominently in the bilateral meetings.”


Over the past decade, China has ramped up relations with major commodity exporters in the region like Brazil and Venezuela. but Mr. Xi’s visit to Trinidad shows a new direction in Beijing’s economic diplomacy and a turn toward areas that were previously deemed less important, analysts say.


“In the past few years, there has been this sense that there was too much emphasis on large powers like the U.S.,” said Yun Sun, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.


“China sees this whole thing as a chess board. If they could consolidate relationships in Africa, Latin America and Central America, it will boost their standing in the world and give them more bargaining power,” she added.


Mr. Xi’s first overseas trip as president in March included stops in Tanzania and the Republic of Congo. After leaving Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday, he is headed to Costa Rica and Mexico before meeting U.S. President Barack Obama in California.


Mr. Xi’s stop in Trinidad, a nation of 1.4 million people, has attracted interest in a region that is still reeling from the U.S. financial crisis five years ago and Europe’s subsequent economic woes, which weighed on its key industries like tourism and financial services.


A February report from the International Monetary Fund said some countries in the region are grappling with a toxic mixture of “low growth, high debt, significant vulnerabilities, and limited resilience to shocks.” Some countries like Jamaica and Grenada face debt levels above 100% of gross domestic product.


“Chinese investors—who are seen as offering loans and investments with less conditions than, say, U.S. investors, and who at the moment have much deeper pockets—are seen as a quite attractive potential solution to this problem,” said Barbara Kotschwar, a scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.


Mr. Xi will hold a three-hour meeting on Sunday morning with leaders from Caribbean countries that have diplomatic relations with China, such as Jamaica.


Over the past several years China has provided aid in the form of multimillion-dollar stadiums, schools and hospitals to countries around the region, partly in an effort to sway allegiances away from Taiwan, which had held stronger diplomatic ties.


On Saturday, Mr. Xi is scheduled to attend a plaque-unveiling ceremony at Trinidad’s new Couva Children’s Hospital, a $150 million project funded by the Chinese government where construction began last year and is slated for completion in 2014.