One may characterize Bahamian diplomacy and public diplomacy as one of hopeless dependency. For this assessment to bear any weight, it is first necessary to take a step back from the issue of diplomacy altogether. A broader approach reveals several startling facts. In most economic, social and political indicators, The Bahamas leads the English speaking Caribbean. Yet, 90% of the country’s food is imported, chiefly from North America. Most of The Bahamas’ national development strategy comes from an economy that is dependent on the tourist dollar. At least 43.6% of GDP in 2014 was attributed to revenues from the tourism sector in 2014 and is scheduled to exceed 50% by 2025. National development in The Bahamas is highly dependent on things going well in the economies of those countries that provide the most visitors, mainly the US. Thus, The Bahamas was seriously impacted by the 2007 recession that affected the markets from which visitors come.
The problem that a country’s finances could be so dependent on, for example, a U.S. family’s decision not to spend discretionary income on home renovations or vacations, has vexed successive governments for nearly 42 years since independence. Often the solution to the jobs crisis — the national unemployment rate is reported to be 15.7%— is simply to sign contracts with multinationals such as The Genting Group to build more casinos and hotels. The IMF reports that for fiscal year 2014/2015 debt owed by the central government will peak at an alarming 60% of GDP. Most of that debt was borrowed from intergovernmental organizations to finance the construction of new roads and highways during the peak of the recession. Additionally, the organization notes that in economic terms, The Bahamas struggles to get back to pre recession levels despite sizable foreign direct investment and construction in the last decade. The only bright spot, the IMF concludes, is that inflation remains under control, with the buying power of the Bahamian dollar roughly that of the US dollar.
But what about public diplomacy? Again, it is necessary to look at the broader geopolitical situation. Bahamian public diplomacy was in its infancy during the early 1970’s after independence. At this time the population was just over 100,000, and since the end of British rule, the government has never budgeted for or needed a military. Because of this, the Bahamas has always relied either on its own soft power in wielding regional influence or the hard power of its allies in shaping Bahamian foreign policy. Generally, public diplomacy in The Bahamas has been a function of what the larger economies of the world desire the Caribbean to look like. Between the years ending the Second World War and the beginning of the cold war, the US Navy, in collaboration with the Royal Navy, either built or refurbished airports at strategic locations throughout the country to serve as platforms where various training exercises could ostensibly be conducted. Additionally, the US Navy and Air Force built a naval research center on Andros island and a missile tracking station on Grand Bahama island to assist with manned space flight—both projects built in the 1950’s, and both with joint Anglo-American funding and administration. The missile tracking station was turned into a film studio, and the airports continue today, accommodating larger commercial aircraft arriving internationally. These ventures directly helped the country post-independence by helping the fledgling state save on the costs of building these facilities with government funds.
In 1997 the Bahamas recognized the PRC diplomatically and, crucially, Taiwan as indistinct from the PRC. Since then, China has invested in the Bahamas in terms of ‘gifts’, foreign direct investment and establishment of new trade links. Surprisingly, neither the Bahamas being the willing recipient of ‘gifts’ from the Chinese government nor the Taiwan issue has caused any friction between the government and the United States. It is not even clear whether the United States sees itself as a competitor with China in the Caribbean. Although development aid in Latin America and the Caribbean by China has increased from $51 million in 2002 to $26.4 billion in 2007, only 28% of that money went to infrastructure and public works. The rest of the money went to the development of the natural resources sector, which primarily benefits China. A cynic could say that this ‘aid’ is only China’s investment in itself.
In January during a visit to Beijing, The Bahamas’ minister of foreign affairs indicated that while the world is still recovering from the global recession, China is one of the few remaining sources of capital in the world. The implication there is that Bahamian foreign policy is shifting its focus away from the US, toward emerging markets, particularly in Asia. The biggest resort in the country, Atlantis, has seen no more than 50-60% occupancy rates in the last 7 years. So it is surprising that construction of the Baha Mar resort, 3/4 of which was financed by the China Export Import Bank, bringing another 2,200 rooms to market, is being heralded by both the Chinese and Bahamian governments as a guaranteed boost to the economy in the coming years.  The claims are dubious, especially considering that, although the new Chinese middle class has more money than at any time in the country’s history, they also have their pick of more readily accessible resort destinations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans that do not require a 17 hour flight.
It is well known that the Chinese government is in search of rare earth minerals and sources of energy to sustain the country’s economic growth in the coming century. Simply put, the Bahamas has none. What China is looking for can be found in sub Saharan Africa and Latin America, where the PRC has made significantly more investment in the countries comprising those continents. Furthermore, The Bahamas has little to offer any other country, and thus our public diplomacy efforts have been aimed mostly at potential consumers of the tourism product where people have the money to spend on leisure.
One plausible argument for the attention China is paying the Bahamas is that, rather than rare earth minerals or fossil fuels, the PRC is more concerned with garnering votes in the United Nations from resources deficient (and therefore insignificant countries) that may not have anything else to offer in advancing China’s self interest. With this worldview in mind, it is safe to assume that the new Bahamian public diplomacy has recalibrated itself to focus more on the elites and high net worth individuals in the most powerful countries abroad.’
Using the examples of China and the U.S. there are two readily available examples to compare the influence The Bahamas seeks over foreign publics. US megastars Beyoncé Knowles and Jay Z have bought an island in the Bahamas for just under $3 million.  Although it may seem trivial, these actions have immense impact on the attitude of young Americans’ perceptions of the country as elite and prestigious, arguably increasing tourism. Perceptions of The Bahamas in popular lore are arguably just as important as an intentional public diplomacy campaigns, because annually, 79% of visitors to The Bahamas come from North America.
While the Bahamas delegation to China visited with president Xi Jinping, during the China CELAC forum in Beijing, Prime Minister of the Bahamas Perry Christie noted that the discussion he had with the President revolved around promises of debt restructuring or outright cancelation, new construction projects financed by various Chinese entities, and cooperation between Chinese universities and Bahamian education institutes. Additionally, it is hoped that the Bahamas will be granted the ability to trade in RMB (only the second jurisdiction in the Americas to do so) allowing The Bahamas to reinforce its reputation as a dominant financial services hub in the region. One could describe these advancements as Chinese public diplomacy in The Bahamas. Although this might on the surface be the case, a closer look reveals that accepting gifts from another country communicates more than admiration of a particular foreign public. China’s generosity may very well indeed spur a competition between political elites in other countries. Crudely said, giving to The Bahamas equals support in the United Nations. Because Bahamian public diplomacy is so young, it is reasonable to put forward a multitude of hypotheses, including this one.
Public diplomacy is a platform that seeks to influence foreign publics’ perception of a given country. In a costly irony, The Bahamas may well end up losing if the US does end up competing with China to win influence in the UN and the Caribbean. As mentioned above, food security and unemployment are two of the country’s most complex issues. A new stadium, airport terminal or hotel will not necessarily change bad decisions made in Washington or Beijing that may lead to another global economic slowdown. As long as subsistence farming is at a minimum and unemployment remains high, gaining friends by sidelining close historical allies may only result in fleeting improvements in quality of life for Bahamians in the short term. China and Russia are often portrayed by the US media as a voting block in the United Nations that often position their interests in direct confrontation with and direct opposition to the West. If this image is promoted in the mind of the ‘buyer’ of The Bahamas’ tourism product, the country could end up suffering from its closeness to China by being seen in the eyes of the North American public as an “enabler”.
(This paper is submitted on March 15, 2015 to the M.A. course Public Diplomacy: Theory and Practice)