President-elect Trump’s relative lack thus far of productive foreign policy toward Latin America has been viewed as an opportunity for China to play an increasingly prominent role in the region. Trump’s indications that he will dismantle the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first day in office, along with his critical view of NAFTA, stand in stark contrast to the trade-related outreach and cooperative frameworks proposed by President Xi Jinping during his mid-November trip to Latin America.
The contrast in Trump’s and Xi’s approaches is especially notable in Cuba. Trump has recently threatened to reverse President Obama’s efforts to improve US-Cuba relations unless Cuba agrees on a “better deal” for the Cuban people. China is meanwhile working on the ground in Cuba to advance the many economic development-related deals made during Premier Li Keqiang’s late September trip to the island.
Li’s visit—the first ever by a Chinese premier—resulted in 30 deals thought to be promoting of bilateral trade and economic development. China excused some of Cuba’s debt and issued four new loans for construction projects, in addition to promoting enhanced cooperation on renewable energy development, industrial policy, trade barrier reduction, telecommunications development, and environmental protection.
It remains to be seen whether these many deals will in fact materialize, or be promoting of economic growth or bilateral trade. But Chinese outreach was well-received in Cuba, especially as international nickel prices decline, sugar cane production dwindles, and Venezuela’s much relied upon economic assistance comes to an end.
Yet, whereas China will likely stand to gain from Trump policy (or lack thereof) in the rest of Latin America, the same isn’t necessarily true in the case of Cuba.
This is because China already has a considerable presence on the island. Cuba was the first Latin American country to recognize the People Republic of China. Beijing has maintained strong ties with Cubans since the 1980s, and especially during Cuba’s “Special Period” in the 1990s. During this time, numerous high-level officials (including Chinese President Xi Jinping) visited Havana, offering low or no-interest finance, technical cooperation, and foreign direct investment. China provided considerable economic and political support to Cuba before the US-Cuba rapprochement and should be expected to continue engaging the island in similar ways, even if Obama’s policy is dismantled.
Also, if anything, China would have gained somewhat from a warming of US-Cuba relations and related improvement of economic conditions on the island. As Jin Canrong, Vice Dean of the School of International Relations of Renmin University, put it, if the US continues to its policy of economic engagement with Cuba, “the Cuban economy will become more open and transparent. This would facilitate trade and investment from China to Cuba.”
What is more, China and the US have been promoting of some of the very same economic reforms in Cuba. China’s support for “socialism with Cuban characteristics” is based in part on gradual marketization and improved openness to inward foreign direct investment.
Although the unraveling of Obama’s Cuba policy could have very negative consequences for US-Cuba relations and perceptions of the US in Latin America, it would have minimal (or even slightly negative) consequences for Chinese companies. China will continue to engage the Cuban leadership, even post-Fidel, as it has for many years—by engaging in economic deal-making and promoting economic reform. We are unlikely to see a considerable uptake in China-Cuba relations during a Trump presidency, in other words.
The US would of course be well advised to continue supporting Cuba’s economic reform through open engagement, and even to work with China on projects of mutual interest.
Xue Boyang is completing his Master’s degree in Latin American Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).