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China’s Caribbean Island Hideaway

What does a full-fledged Chinese embassy do on a small Caribbean island?

March 18, 2001

What does a full-fledged Chinese embassy do on a small Caribbean island?

The white sandy beaches of St. Lucia have always been the draw for the 200,000-plus visitors that come to the tiny tropical isle each year. Though the island is only about 3.5 times as large as Washington, D.C. — and has a mere 150,000 inhabitants — its reputation as a quiet island paradise is world renowned.

Perhaps less notable is the tiny island’s quiet approach to diplomatic relations. Just four countries have embassies on St. Lucia. Great Britain and France — both former imperial rulers of the island — as well as nearby Venezuela, operate embassies in the area of Castris, the capital of St. Lucia.

And with legitimate geographic and historic reasons for diplomatic involvement in the island’s affairs, few can argue with the reason why each of these three nations has ambassador level stations on the island. However, why would such a faraway country as China — with no historical and few economic ties to the island — maintain an embassy there?

Of course, one could always justify the existence of an embassy with trade. Unfortunately, according to IMF data, the only year St. Lucia exported anything to China was 1992 — and that was only worth a meager $2,700! Chinese exports to St. Lucia are much higher. Yet, the $1.3 million worth of exports reached in 1999 are not substantial enough to justify a diplomatic representation based on trade relations.

Compare that number to the dollar value of imports from the United States. 36% of all imports to St. Lucia come from the United States — a full $109 million worth. In the same year, St. Lucia exported goods worth $28.4 million to the United States. And still, even the United States does not have a consulate or an embassy on the island. Instead, the U.S. Embassy in Barbados has seen to it that it is accredited to St. Lucia as well.

The Chinese ambassador who lives closest to St. Lucia is Ambassador Liu Daqun, but even he resides on Jamaica. It is Ambassador Daqun’s embassy that deals with the day-to-day business of representing China in the Caribbean.

By contrast, the Embassy in St. Lucia is rather empty. Nevertheless, it’s an astonishingly luxurious building in an exclusive neighborhood — far away from the island’s politics and in close proximity to its most beautiful beaches. What’s more, it seems that the embassy does mainly accommodate some occasional visitors.

So, then just what brought the Chinese to establish diplomatic relations with St. Lucia in 1997? According to locals, it was tourism — but not just any kind of tourism. Some of the locals call it “state-subsidized tourism” for high-ranking Chinese party officials — though such a description might be a bit over top. Yet, circumstantial evidence at least supports the hypothesis that the Chinese embassy in St. Lucia is some sort of a holiday camp for the party’s privileged.

To double check, we checked the island’s telephone directory and tried to call several of the numbers listed for the Chinese Embassy. But, alas, our attempts elicited no response — not even from an answering machine.

We did, however, turn up an official mailing address: Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in St. Lucia, Castries, West Indies, P.O. Box GM999. But what the mailing address did not state was the actual physical location of the embassy — on St. Lucia’s exclusive and breathtaking Cap Estate in the city of Gros Islet, population 14,000.

Cap Estate is a fairly new development on the northern tip of the island, less than 10 miles away from Castris harbor. The developers who built it planned for a sophisticated neighborhood. And to that end, mansions are literally splattered all over the local golf course.

Two of the most expensive hotels — the Hyatt Regency and Le Sport — are practically around the corner, as are two of the island’s nicest beaches. And if real estate value and aesthetics are any guideline, then the choice for the site of the embassy could hardly have been any better.

Struggling to make contact with anyone associated with the mysterious embassy, we finally decided to make a house call to the station at Cap Estate. From outside the compound’s locked gate, we could see several cars through the gated entrance. But — surprise, surprise — there was no officials, much less an ambassador, anywhere in sight. Quite possibly, the last load of official visitors had just departed, while the new crew had not yet arrived.