Mirroring Taiwan: China and Cuba

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 10

On the surface, Sino-Cuba relations may be difficult to take seriously. Hu Jintao heads the world’s largest and most explosively developing county while Fidel Castro stands astride a faraway, skinny island with one of the most stagnant economies in the world. In 1960 Cuba was the first Latin American country to recognize China’s new communist government. Yet early friendly relations turned sour toward the end of the decade with the emergence of the Sino-Soviet dispute. Since Castro saw his “destiny” as waging a war against the United States, he needed the kind of financial support and military shield that only Moscow could then provide.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry says that 1989 “marked the full resumption and development of Sino-Cuban relations.” Broadly speaking, according to a top Cuba specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), bilateral cooperation in the past and future will be concentrated mainly in the production of nickel, prospecting for oil, bio-technology, tourism, telecommunications and information technology, and infrastructure (Xu Shicheng, April 5). The most dramatic moments of the relationship have been Fidel Castro’s visits to China in 1995 and 2003, Raul Castro’s in 1997 and 2005, and trips to Cuba by China’s top leaders, including Jiang Zemin in 1993 and 2001 and Hu Jintao in late-2004. All current statements from Beijing and Havana say relations are now at an all-time high.

Cuba’s reasons for wanting this relationship are clear. Fidel Castro has long attracted disciples from Berkeley to Hanoi, but he has never been able to make his small country work. Indeed, with few exceptions, he is regarded as an economic “numbskull” (a term he used in 1979 to characterize Deng Xiaoping) of epic proportions who has almost always had to rely on massive handouts from foreign patrons. For 30 years that meant the Soviet bloc. When that patron collapsed, Cuba entered what Castro called a “special period” of severe domestic crisis. Yet Castro survived and cultivated new patrons in Venezuela, with its fiery anti-American, populist president Hugo Chavez, now awash in petro-dollars, and in the Middle Kingdom. These two are now Cuba’s top trade partners and sources of diplomatic and other support. They also have a common international concern: Washington.

The rationale of the relationship for China is more complicated. Some argue that the material interests that are central to China’s burgeoning activities in Latin America are generally less important in the Cuban case. When it comes to Castro, Professor Wenran Jiang said in an interview, “personal contacts and feelings” stand out, a position suggested in April by a top Chinese diplomat in Washington. Some Chinese today look on Fidel with some nostalgia and respect as a “revolutionary” in the old style (April 23). In fact Professor Yinghong Cheng, whose biography of Castro was published in China in 1999 and then pulled from the bookstores because of its critical tone, argues that Beijing hardliners sometimes use support for Cuba to buttress their own revolutionary credentials. A former top level Cuban intelligence official, however, rejects the ideological and sentimental friendship arguments, seeing bilateral relations much more pragmatically, founded in mutually beneficial “conveniences and alliances” (April 11).

The main incident that endeared Castro to many in China’s current leadership was his coming through when they desperately needed allies during post-Mao China’s most severe crisis: Tiananmen. The critical period, as chronicled by Cheng in a forthcoming issue of China Quarterly, began on June 4, 1989, when the government cracked down on demonstrations around China. In his memoirs, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen tells how he was touring Latin America when the repression began and how he suddenly found himself persona-non-grata in the region. He “retreated” to Cuba. Castro treated him royally for four days and gave Cuba’s unconditional support for whatever actions Chinese leaders considered necessary to preserve socialism, as he had for the Soviets in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Not coincidentally, within days Fidel launched his own repression, namely the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa and others on charges of corruption and drug dealing but really for seeming to challenge his power. Then China returned the support.

There is a complex mix of other economic, political and strategic factors in the relationship. While most reports are that bilateral trade reached about $750 million in 2005, the former Cuban intelligence source says Cuban officials speak of $1 billion (March 26). At least 16 memorandums of understanding were signed during Hu Jintao’s visit to Cuba in late-2004, and there have been more since. Most important for China, Cuba is believed to have the world’s third largest nickel reserves and Beijing is pumping $500 million into doubling the island’s annual production. There are smaller Chinese investments in directional drilling rigs and other products for oil exploration and production. Beijing has given aid, postponed debt repayments and arranged credit with preferential interest rates and repayment schedules.

In political terms, Havana and China support each other on such issues as China’s 2005 anti-secession law aimed at Taiwan, lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba and rejecting international charges of human rights violations. Both oppose a unipolar world and governments that promote “regime change,” that is, the United States. They stress their common interest in developing socialism with national characteristics, though one prominent CASS Latin Americanist noted that to progress Cuba must at the very least establish mechanisms of the “socialist market economy” and “smash egalitarianism” (December 10, 2003). Since a dozen of the countries that still recognize Taipei as the capital of China are in Latin America, China will try to use Cuba’s good offices, and other enticements, to persuade those countries to switch their relations to Beijing.

There are frequent meetings between Chinese and Cuban political leaders just below the chief-of-state level. These officials have worked to develop closer cooperation between, for example, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Cuban National Assembly, and in developing “democratic institutions” and legal systems that will promote what Luo Gan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, called the stability and development of their countries. Of particular interest is a comment attributed to Hu Jintao in late-2004, stating that “in ideological supervision, we should learn from Cuba and North Korea” (Kai Fang, December 2004). Yinghong Cheng said in an interview that the comment has circulated widely among Chinese intellectuals and is thought to reflect a Maoist-leftist tendency in Hu’s thinking and governance (May 7), as does his relationship with Castro.

One more important factor is the “mirror” relationship of the Americans to Taiwan and Chinese to Cuba. The United States provides sophisticated military support for the island just off China’s coast, while China, partly in response, gives similar but much more limited support to Cuba, a small, threatened island off the U.S. coast. This support is political, economic and strategic, the latter being national defense against U.S. threats to remove the Castros. It is possible that Cuba could have a “growing geo-strategic value” to China in the future, as Wenran Jiang suggests ( April 23), though Jiang is also correct in also saying that Beijing shows no signs of wanting to antagonize Washington now by developing a provocative relationship there. Indeed, a quiet tradeoff seems to have taken place: the Americans accept Chinese activities in Cuba in exchange for China’s silence about U.S. surveillance activities along China’s coast and in neighboring Asian countries. Pragmatic Cubans worry that a resolution of the Taiwan issue might leave Havana high and dry.

A related issue is Chinese involvement with Cuban military and intelligence. Last year, the top U.S. Defense Department specialist on Latin America testified that there is no evidence of a conventional Chinese military threat to the United States in Latin America, though “we need to be alert to rapidly advancing Chinese capabilities, particularly in the fields of intelligence, communications and cyber-warfare, and their possible application in the region” (Congressional testimony, April 6, 2005). In an April 2006 seminar in Washington, U.S. National Defense University professor Frank Mora correctly argued that many allegations of Chinese involvement in Cuba are greatly exaggerated or unproven. One dramatic lie, deliberate or otherwise, is the internet posting of a photograph of awesome and presumably China-related golf ball-shaped radar domes allegedly in Bejucal, Cuba; the facility pictured is actually a U.S. base in the UK.

In April 2006, Guo Boxiong, Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC), told the director of the Cuban military’s General Logistics Department visiting Beijing that “great progress” has been made in recent years “with frequent high-ranking visits and smooth cooperation in technical and personnel training” (Xinhua, April 17). More specifically, the former high-level Cuban intelligence source says that perhaps half of the CMC members have visited Cuba and training of high military and Interior Ministry (MININT) officers is underway in China. There have undoubtedly been sales of high-tech equipment and perhaps donations from past hardware generations. A number one priority has been personnel and defense technologies for Cuba’s Air and Air Defense Forces (DAAFAR), since it might someday have to repel a U.S. invasion, the “mirror” on Taiwan. Among those trained in China and working with the Chinese is DAAFAR chief Pedro Mendiondo Gomez, an expert in air defense. The source says there are no Chinese present at the Cuban base of Bejucal, though the exchange of intelligence is “obvious and true,” as one expects between friendly states. China has provided most of the 5,000 computers and all the televisions for Castro’s new “cyber university” at the former Soviet base of Lourdes outside Havana.

Finally, China will almost certainly be a major influence on Cuba’s immediate post-Fidel reforms. As former Cuban UN Ambassador Alcibiades Hidalgo and I have written, heir-apparent “Raul Castro has for many years sympathized with change in the Chinese or Vietnamese style, that is, capitalism or something like it in the economy, which is still called socialist, but with a single political party and repression of politics” (Hoover Digest, Fall 2004). Fidel Castro has blocked most such reform so far, though he has left the door ajar for his successors by saying such things as in nation-building, “Cuba can draw on China’s successful experience” (Chinese Foreign Ministry, February 27, 2003).

Thus in the end relations between these two countries are more interesting and perhaps important than their varying orientations and roles in the world today would seem to suggest.