Chinese Perspective on US-Cuba Rapprochement by Emile Dirks

CORN December 2014 Edition

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A repost from CORN’s partner
Sino-NK website.

10th United States Infantry Division, agents of America’s extra-continental expansion. China and North Korea have at least this in common: outside invasion from a powerful foreign (some would argue imperial) force. Image: Wikipedia

10th United States Infantry Division, agents of America’s extra-continental expansion. China and North Korea have at least this in common: outside invasion from a powerful foreign (some would argue imperial) force. Image: Wikipedia

On December 17, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro simultaneously announced that the two countries had agreed to move towards normalizing diplomatic and economic relations. Such a move was long overdue. For years, both friend and foe of the United States had been calling upon it to lift unilateral sanctions against Cuba. And for a country which had restored diplomatic relations with a range of former enemies (including Communist Party-ruled Vietnam and Laos), Washington’s intransigence towards the nearby island nation had become an embarrassing anachronism. Six decades of economic sanctions had seemingly produced little except hardship for the Cuban people, and despite the best efforts of the CIA, the Communist Party remains firmly in power. Signaling an end to the US blockade was long overdue.

In China, these developments have been covered with less interest than foreign observers may have expected of a fellow (nominally) socialist state. A cursory look at the results of a Baidu search for reports on the thaw in United States-Cuba relations reveals mostly state media coverage, with little to indicate a general interest in such a historic event among the general public. However, what does emerge is an interesting lens into Chinese views of US domestic and foreign policy, and a peek at the seemingly intractable animosity that characterizes US relations with another Cold War opponent, North Korea.

The Chinese Perspective on US-Cuba Rapprochement | Chinese state media has been unanimous in welcoming the restoration of US-Cuba ties, with Global Times describing the moves by US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to “break the ice” as “undoubtedly a historical step” [两国领导人的“破冰之举”无疑是历史性进步]. After detailing the “consistently hostile attitude adopted by the US government towards Cuba” [美国政府一直对古巴采取敌视态度] following the country’s 1959 revolution, 21st Century Economic Report called the move by the Obama administration a major foreign policy legacy for the US president [重要的外交遗产].

Chinese analysts were quick to point out that the US sanctions regime had not only been ineffective, but counterproductive. In the words of the overseas edition of People’s Daily, US policy towards Cuba had been like “dropping a stone on one’s own foot” [搬起石头砸自己的腿], leaving the United States isolated from her Latin American neighbors and chastised by annual UN General Assembly resolutions calling for an end to the embargo. According to China Youth Daily, President Obama will be keen to use the restoration of US-Cuba ties to draw closer to a Latin American region that has drifted further outside the American orbit over the last few decades. A front page editorial on the overseas edition of People’s Daily was even more biting, suggesting that the Obama administration’s failed “pivot to Asia” strategy was partly behind US moves towards rapprochement with the Cuban government.

But as the Global Times notes, the project of fully restoring US-Cuba relations “not only faces great tests, but also demands a long period of strenuous work” [不仅面临重重考验,而且需要久久为功]. Persistent ideological divisions between the two countries remain, including on issues such as human rights. Domestic political challenges in the United States may also prevent the Obama administration from proceeding further with the normalization of bilateral relations. Following this year’s US midterm elections, both Houses of Congress are now in the hands of the Republican Party, leaving Obama, in the words of the Global Times, a “minority party president” [少数派的总统]. Facing a lame duck president, Republicans like Marc Rubio and Jeb Bush (whose wife is identified by People’s Daily as a “staunch anti-Cuban-ist” [一名坚定的“反古巴主义者”] are likely to seek to block any moves to lift the decades-old embargo.

Striking a more hopeful note, Beijing News examined the popular support in Cuba for renewed US-Cuba ties that years of modest socio-economic reforms–so-called “Cuban-style reform and opening” [古巴式“改革开放”]–had produced. China’s former ambassador to Cuba Liu Yuqin (刘玉琴), quoted in the article, describes a people already hungering for the opportunities that greater economic linkages with the United States are expected to bring. And as Cuba’s largest trading partner, China may stand to gain from the greater economic openness and transparency that will accompany both economic reforms and an end to the US embargo, claims Professor Jin Canrong (金灿荣) of Renmin University’s International Relations Department in a recent People’s Dailyarticle.

A Template for US-North Korea Relations? | Yet lurking behind the coverage of warming US-Cuba ties is an issue of far greater interest to the average Chinese reader: the potential for a similar rapprochement between the United States and North Korea. Rather than commenting directly, Chinese media has tended to let official statements by North and South Korea speak for themselves. People’s Daily cites a recent General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (旅日朝鲜人总联合会/조총련) media statement proclaiming the restoration of US-Cuba relations a “great defeat” for the US and a “great victory” for Cuba [这是美国的“大败”和古巴的“大胜”]. Striking a triumphalist note, the pro-North Korean media claims “Obama’s admission that [US] policy towards Cuba has been a failure, and [his] decision to adopt new diplomatic methods, is a declaration of surrender” [奥巴马承认了对古巴政策的失败,决定采用新的外交方式,这是一种投降的宣言].

However, it is the words of a South Korean foreign ministry spokesperson (cited in an article fromInternational Online) that perhaps better captures the feelings of China’s community of North Korea watchers. While welcoming the news of improved US-Cuba ties, the spokesperson noted that the there has always been a “fundamental difference” [有根本区别] in US policy towards Cuba and North Korea. The US embargo on Cuba reflected a unilateral hostility towards the socialist state unshared by even the US closest allies. In contrast, American sanctions on North Korea have been in direct response to “North Korea’s conducting of nuclear weapons and missile tests [and their] violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and the 9.19 Joint Statement” [而朝鲜因为进行核武器和弹道导弹开发,违反了联合国安理会决议和9.19共同声明等协议文件]. The recent fallout surrounding North Korea’s alleged involvement in the hacking of Sony Entertainment’s emails–and the cancellation of the release of the North Korea-themed Hollywood comedy “The Interview”–has only served to reconfirm the sense that US-DPRK relations are defined by a level of animosity not present in bilateral US-Cuba ties. Ironically, as the US now considers taking one former Cold War enemy, Cuba, off of the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, China National Radioreports that the Obama administration is now mulling reinstating North Korea (taken off the list in 2008) following the Sony hacking scandal.

The article concludes with the spokesperson articulating the South Korean government’s hope that North Korea will abandon its weapons tests and “choose the path of becoming a normal member of the international community” [选择成为国际社会正常成员之路]. Such sentiments echo the opinion of many Chinese watchers of North Korea. Over the last few weeks, an intense debate over the merits of China’s relationship with North Korea has taken place in the opinion pages of the Global Times. It is hard to imagine anyone in China getting equally worked up about the state of US-Cuba relations. And it is perhaps a marker of strategic disinterest, more than anything else, that best explains the lack of attention the story of warming US-Cuba ties has received in the Chinese press.

Sources: 古巴式’改革开放’” [Cuban-style “Reform and Opening”], Xinjing Bao, December 21, 2014.

美国古巴关系正常化面临三大挑战” [The Three Challenges Facing the Normalization of US-Cuba Relations], Huanqiu Shibao, December 19, 2014.

美国古巴关系解冻” [The Thawing of US-Cuba Relations], 21 Shiji Jingji Baodao, December 19, 2014.

美古关系改善释放三重信号” [The Three Signals Given Off by the Improvement in US-Cuba Relations], Renmin Ribao Haiwaiban, December 19, 2014.

旅日朝鲜人媒体:美古破冰证明美封锁政策失败” [General Association of Koreans in Japan Media: Breaking of the Ice between US and Cuba Proves the Failure of the US’ Embargo Policy], Renmin Wang, December 19, 2014.

韩国称美国对古巴政策和对朝政策存在根本区别” [South Korea says US Policy Towards Cuba and North Korea Are Fundamentally Different], Dongfang Wang, December 19, 2014.

学者:美国与古巴关系正常化“利好”中国” [Scholar: The Normalization of US-Cuba Relations ‘Benefits’ China], Renmin Wang, December 18, 2104.

Translations by Emile Dirks.


emileEmile Dirks is currently a PhD student in Political Science studying Comparative Politics and Development at the University of Toronto.   His research focuses on local responses to Chinese hydroelectric projects in Burma/Myanmar and Indonesia.   Prior to his doctoral studies, Emile worked in the NGO-sector on the Thai-Burma border and pursued language studies at the Beijing Language and Culture University.   Emile can be reached at emile.dirks [at] mail.utoronto.ca

 


 

This commentary reflects only the author’s personal opinion.

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