Guyana is stuck in the middle of a Sino-centric game of chess – recently the nation of around 800,000 people trimmed diplomatic relations with Taiwan after threats from Beijing. This is nothing new in the 21st century proxy war between both China and Taiwan; it has become a diplomatic game of chess with the Chinese government looking to assert more power over its much smaller neighbour, wherever it can. Guyana, as a result of the Taiwan incident, is now caught between a rock and a hard place with its long-time ally China.
On the one hand, Guyanese relations with its neighbour Venezuela, another long-time friend of China, have been strained once again. Fighter jets allegedly entered Guyanese airspace over the Essequibo river region of the country on Wednesday; a simmering dispute that has lasted nearly 200 years. The Chinese are clearly pulling the strings here with warm relations on both sides making the situation very unpredictable.
When you add oil giant ExxonMobil to mix, you then find yourself in the middle of a great power struggle, and pique the interest of the US itself. ExxonMobil recently discovered oil fields off Guyana’s coast with the potential to produce around 750,000 barrels a day; creating an enormous dilemma for the Georgetown, home of the Guyanese government.
Many Guyanese are seeking to leave behind their stricken past and welcome the economic boom that oil usually brings developing nations, but a rising China and renewed US administration signals a bumpy ride ahead.
The US and Taiwan are welded together by a deep distrust for Chinese ambition whilst Venezuela and China are bound by socialist principles. President of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, is clearly keen to avoid repercussions from the Chinese and within 24 hours, his foreign ministry rolled back a Taiwanese agreement to build an embassy in Georgetown. Soon after, China donated 20,000 coronavirus vaccines to the country with Guyanese foreign minister, Hugh Todd commenting on the “tangible demonstration of the importance of the bilateral relationship between Guyana and China”; a move that will likely shake US confidence in the region.
However, Washington has the upper hand with both the US and Guyana undertaking joint operations to combat coastal drug trafficking in the region. An agreement with Trump-era secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, kickstarted these operations, making the previous administrations stance well known. There is also a need to protect the interests of the 200,000 Americans with Guyanese ancestry or dual citizenship living on US soil. Leverage from what you could call, a diaspora, in addition to an already heavy Latin American presence, means China has a long way to go before it can really disrupt US influence in the micro nation.
An outward looking Biden administration is keen to continue building good relations with President Ali but with an emerging global China, the US will have its work cut out. The corridor between Guyana and Venezuela is strategically important as a route to the Panama Canal and frosty US-Venezuela relations means Guyana, with its growing economy will be more important than ever in the centuries long struggle for dominance in Latin America.
China too must pick a side, and with Venezuela being out of the question for US diplomats, Washington knows where it stands. Although China must decide between defending allied socialist principles or fully entering the wider Latin American market – that is not as easy as it seems. The US must act first and focus on building stronger relations with Guyana without playing the neo-colonialist it so often does in the Americas.
For Guyana, it has a once in a generation opportunity to develop a sustainable economy that works for all its citizens and to heal its deep ethnic divisions. Great power interference, albeit is a separate issue and without a clear foreign policy, Guyana will have too many hands in its newfound oil piggybank – the usual catalyst of an oil cursed nation.