October 1, 2020 | The Dispatch

Two More Reasons to Worry About China

Keep an eye on China’s relationship with Cuba, for starters.
October 1, 2020 | The Dispatch

Two More Reasons to Worry About China

Keep an eye on China’s relationship with Cuba, for starters.

I was going to try to peg this week’s Vital Interests newsletter to the first presidential debate. But after rewatching parts of it, and reading through the transcript, I decided to move on with my life. Here are two China-related stories that caught my attention, with a little additional context for each.

Keep an eye on China’s relationship with Cuba.

On September 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of the Cuba Prohibited Accommodations (CPA) List, which “includes 433 properties that are owned or controlled by the Cuban regime or certain well-connected insiders.” The list is intended to discourage Americans from staying at hotels owned by the Cuban government and from “attending or organizing certain professional meetings or conferences in Cuba.” Simultaneously, the U.S. Treasury Department took steps to restrict imports of “Cuba-origin alcohol and tobacco products.”

Both of the moves are intended to cut off profit streams that the Cuban government can use to bolster its own power, at the expense of the Cuban people, while also buttressing its ally in Venezuela. Since the days of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, the Cuban regime has helped the Venezuelan socialists quash internal dissent. That relationship has continued since their deaths, with Cuban military and intelligence officials assisting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in his crackdown on the opposition. “We are grateful to Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces,” Maduro said in 2017, according to Reuters. “We salute them and will always welcome them.” The U.S. has backed Maduro’s rival, Juan Guaidó, but he has failed to unseat Maduro.

The relationship between Cuba and Venezuela is problematic in its own right, but there is another actor throwing both regimes a lifeline: China.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was quick to bolster its ally in Cuba—at least rhetorically—after the Trump administration’s latest moves. On September 28, just several days after Pompeo’s announcement, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang (China’s premier) called upon their friends in the Cuban regime, including Raul Castro Ruz, Fidel’s brother and political heir, as well as President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Ostensibly, according to the Chinese foreign ministry’s readout, the calls were initiated “to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations.” But the subtext was clear, China and Cuba would stand together against the U.S., just as they did throughout the Cold War decades.

Xi congratulated Raul Castro on the fact that “China-Cuba relations have withstood the vicissitudes of the international situation and grown ever stronger”—a thinly veiled reference to America’s actions. Xi also trumpeted the two nations’ cooperation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, saying their relationship had reached a “new high” during this time of crisis. “I cherish the unique friendly relations between China and Cuba very much and I am willing to maintain close communication with you,” Xi told Raul. “We should take the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries as an opportunity to make China and Cuba good friends, good comrades and good brothers forever.”

In a separate chat, Xi trumpeted Cuba’s involvement in the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is intended to increase China’s political and economic clout around the globe. Cuba and China have agreed to multiple business deals as part of the BRI. The Chinese have increasingly imported Cuban consumer goods, including cigars, rum and seafood, while the two sides have agreed to cooperate in more sophisticated fields, such as cybersecurity and biotechnology. In 2019, the Cubans boasted of a made-in-China train connecting Havana to Santiago—the first new locomotive on the island nation in 40 years.

Cuba was deeply dependent on Venezuela. After a series of economic and political crises rocked that nation, the Cubans turned to the Chinese for additional assistance. The CCP agreed to step up. It is true that Cuba uses China’s largesse to dampen the effects of trade and travel restrictions enacted by the Trump administration. But the Chinese expanded their footprint on the island nation before the Trump years, taking advantage of President Obama’s more permissive attitude to deepen the economic relationship.

In his own conversation with Cuban Prime Minister Marrero Cruz, Premier Li said the “bilateral relationship has not only benefited the two countries and peoples but also exerted a positive influence on the development of China-Latin America relations.” That is, the CCP sees Cuba as a key gateway for spreading its influence throughout Latin America.

Pompeo and the State Department have taken steps to combat China’s moves in the region. Pompeo has made it clear to Latin American nations that they should be wary of dealing with China. Kimberly Breier, who was then assistant secretary at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, noted in 2019 that China’s “opaque practices enable corruption, erode good governance, and challenge state sovereignty” throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. “The government of China, and Chinese firms, have engaged in behavior in the hemisphere that undermines the sovereignty and national security of both the United States and democratic partners in the Americas,” Breier added.

There’s much more to the story, of course. But the key point is that the “great power competition” between the U.S. and China involves Cuba, an old Cold War foe, which still hasn’t liberalized its political regime.

The State Department points out that Xi lied about the Spratly Islands.

On September 27, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus issued a strongly worded rebuke of the CCP for misleading the world about its intentions in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Ortagus pointed out that during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden on September 25, 2015, Xi Jinping swore that China “does not intend to pursue militarization” of the Spratly Islands, and the Chinese presence wouldn’t “target or impact any country.”

That was a lie.

“China has instead pursued a reckless and provocative militarization of those disputed outposts, they have deployed anti-ship cruise missiles, expanded military radar and signal intelligence capabilities, constructed dozens of fighter jet hangars, and have built runways capable of accommodating combat aircraft,” Ortagus pointed out.

As you might expect, the CCP didn’t take kindly to Ortagus’s statement.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, responded during a press conference the following day. (China refers to the Spratly archipelago as the “Nansha Islands.”) “The Nansha Islands are Chinese territory,” Wang said, despite the fact that multiple nations have claims in and around the island chain. Wang portrayed China’s buildup as “defense measures” that are necessary for “self-preservation and self-defense under international law.” He then accused the U.S. of being the “major factor driving ‘militarization’ in the South China Sea,” alleging that America is pursuing its own “maritime hegemony” while stoking tensions between China and “regional countries under the pretext of the South China issue.”

“Some fanatics in the U.S. are even calling for attacks against China in the South China Sea,” Wang said. “As proven by facts, the U.S. has become the biggest threat to peace and stability in the region.”

Wang’s evocation of international law is rich. The Chinese government doesn’t abide by rulings under the 1982 Law of Sea Convention that don’t go its way. And the U.S. isn’t the source of tensions over maritime disputes. China is. Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have competing claims throughout the South China Sea that the CCP seeks to quash.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal. Follow Tom on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power