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Blinken's trip to the Caribbean could signal a new chapter for U.S. foreign policy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago this week to meet with Caribbean leaders to talk about food and climate security and economic issues. It is a notable trip for anybody who pays close attention to the region, but especially for those who feel the U.S. may undervalue its relationships with countries in the Caribbean. We're joined now by Daniel Runde. He's a vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. Runde, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL RUNDE: Thanks for having me, Scott. It's great to be on.

SIMON: You have written that the U.S. needs to be more involved in the Caribbean. Does Secretary Blinken's visit signal that?

RUNDE: I thought it was an important step. I know that President Biden has met with many leaders of the Caribbean on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas last year. Vice President Harris has been taking a lead on some of these issues. As you know, her father is from Jamaica, so she's the first Caribbean American vice president we've ever had. However, I think the region continues to be - feel overlooked, and I think that there's increasing attention in the region from actors like China. And so as a result, I think we need to pay more attention to the region, not only because China is paying more attention but because of the potential that the Caribbean offers.

SIMON: Well, help us understand that potential.

RUNDE: You have a number of countries like the Bahamas with very high GNP per capita, whereas you have others that are very poor, some of the world's poorest, like Haiti. And they're largely peaceful democracies. There's been some challenges recently, but this is a region that its largest trading partner's the United States, and in some years the Caribbean is - collectively is our sixth-largest trading partner. So we kind of undervalue how important it is to our shared future. We have a number of security bases in the Caribbean Basin. A number of the countries of the 30 or so Caribbean Basin countries recognize Taiwan, as opposed to mainland China. And so it's a region that is often thought about in terms of tourism, and that's a very incomplete understanding. I mean, it's a region with some manufacturing and could have greater manufacturing capacity. It's a region with great potential in terms of nearshoring, which is a term we've talked a lot about since the pandemic, when people thought, well, maybe we ought to rethink where we're buying and sourcing things or where we have global supply chains. But I think we need to be thinking about what kind of offer we're making our friends in the Caribbean in terms of development, in terms of security and in terms of trade.

SIMON: For all of the reasons that you mentioned, the Caribbean is also of interest to China, isn't it?

RUNDE: It really is. I think one of the reasons is that, you know, there's some Caribbean nations with significant natural resources. Sometimes there's a tension from China because some of the Caribbean nations recognize Taiwan, and so every time that a Caribbean nation switches from, say, recognizing Taiwan to the mainland, it means that Taiwan has less and less diplomatic recognition. Huawei, the telecoms company, is the technology backbone of much of the Caribbean's telecom systems because it's - unfortunately, it's a high-quality, price-competitive technology offering that we haven't yet come up with an alternative. So in the digital space, sometimes in the infrastructure space, sometimes in the raw material space and sometimes let's call it in the geopolitical diplomatic space, China has interests in the Caribbean. The good news is that fear of China is forcing the United States to pay more attention and to be a slightly better partner. And I think the region always feels overlooked and slighted, and it's true.

SIMON: Let me ask you about what I'll just refer to as the challenge of Haiti. Hunger levels, gang violence have soared there over the past few years. I gather Secretary Blinken called for a multinational approach to try and help the country's police deal with the violence. What do you think the U.S. role should be?

RUNDE: So up until now, no one has really stepped up to demonstrate leadership on this issue. There's been lots of calls for it, but there hasn't been anyone willing to step forward. And I think there's a number of reasons for that. Many of the - what you might describe as the likely suspects who would lead something like this - the United States, France, Canada and Brazil - have not necessarily - I'm not going to call it deafening silence, but you didn't hear CARICOM - that's the grouping of Caribbean nations. You didn't hear the CARICOM Nation say, oh, we are going to step forward and lead on this. I mean, Haiti has a long and complicated history with outside actors, including France, the United States and the United Nations. So people of goodwill have said something must be done to help Haiti, and they are right. But with all this tumultuous history, no one has stepped forward. And I think - unfortunately, I think you're going to - I worry that no one's going to want to step forward because of all these bad experiences, if I can put it that way.

SIMON: Daniel Runde is senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you so much for being with us.

RUNDE: Thanks, Scott.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.