Op-Ed

Rubio: Helping Bahamians rebuild is a matter of basic morality — and thwarts China, too | Opinion

For many of us in South Florida, the devastation in the Bahamas caused by Hurricane Dorian is personal.

Not only have we lived through destructive hurricanes, but Bahamians are our friends, neighbors, and family members. The majority of Bahamian-Americans reside in the state of Florida, and our ties to their forebears’ nation remain a source of great cultural and economic nourishment.

The conditions on Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands are shocking. Communities look as if they have been flattened by a bomb, not a storm. With 70,000 Bahamians made homeless by the hurricane’s terrible power, the island nation is in urgent need of the kind of logistical assistance that only the U.S. Defense Department can offer. By devoting available military and medical assets to the effort, we have the ability to help our afflicted neighbors and family members and save Bahamian lives.

I am advocating these measures because directing resources to assist Bahamians is the right thing to do. But there exists an additional imperative on the security national level, as well: if we fail to rise to the occasion, China will step in to seize the moment and exploit the recovery for its own nefarious purposes.

In recent years, China has sought to expand its presence and influence in the Bahamas. With many airports no longer operational and ports rendered unnavigable, the post-Dorian situation is tailor-made for Chinese exploitation. Beijing’s predatory mercantilist international strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, is predicated on offering other nations assistance with infrastructure projects.

China reaches out to interested nations with promises of hefty investment. After reaching an agreement, Beijing hijacks the country’s resources and infrastructure, often dramatically ramping up the lending terms after initial negotiation. Sri Lanka, for example, was forced to hand over an entire port after Beijing’s lofty promises failed to yield the desired outcome. Huawei’s efforts to update the Bahamas’ cell service infrastructure to 4G in 2014 and upgrade the nation’s underseas transatlantic internet links are yet another data point of Chinese involvement.

After China worms its way in, it fuels corruption in domestic policymaking, as Beijing’s money lands in the hands of competing politicians. Past parties have also said that Chinese intelligence and strategic considerations have been on the negotiating table. The goal is to leave nations beholden to Beijing for decades to come. It’s debt-trap diplomacy.

By targeting the Bahamian government in this period of crisis, Beijing would be making the same opportunistic play to access critical foreign infrastructure.

But in this case, the national security threat is especially perilous, as it would give China a foothold just 50 miles from the coast of Florida.

We cannot allow this to happen. It is on us to take the lead in helping the Bahamian people with their near-term, life-or-death struggle as only the U.S. and our military can, but also to be reliable partners over the long term.

Bahamians are fortunate to have a stable and capable government already working overtime on the recovery effort.

However, the level of destruction that Dorian caused is unprecedented, and Americans, as regional partners and global leaders, have both moral and national security imperatives to lend our logistical resources to help the Bahamas and defend our own hemisphere from China’s encroachment.

Together, the U.S. and the Bahamas will rebuild those communities left reeling in the hurricane’s wake, and, as a result, we will only strengthen our mutual interests and long-standing relationship.

Marco Rubio is a senator from Florida.

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