Why It Matters

Cuba to get best of both worlds?

While United States President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba this week presents a historic reset in ties for two North American countries that have been at odds for half a century, the move also made ripples on the other side of the world - in China.

A series of articles published by Chinese state media ahead of Mr Obama's landmark trip all carried warnings about American intentions.

Last week, Xinhua published an article that opened with the line that the visit "cannot reverse the fact that the United States has not yet dropped its ideology of interventionism in Latin America" and an op-ed headlined "Rapprochement with Cuba requires renunciation of US arrogance".

Observers say Beijing's less than sanguine take on the potential normalisation of ties between the US and Cuba is not surprising, given how China has spent years building up its influence in the socialist country. An opening up of US-Cuba ties may well turn the island into another arena of competition for political and economic influence between two world powers.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, China's trade with Cuba grew by 57 per cent in the first three quarters of last year to US$1.6 billion (S$2.2 billion), and direct flights between Beijing and Havana began last December. China is Cuba's second-largest trading partner behind Venezuela.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his predecessors, Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Jiang Zemin, have also all visited Cuba.

In contrast, the US has done nearly no business with the island, just 150km away, since a trade embargo was imposed in 1960. Mr Obama is the first president to set foot there in nearly 90 years.

Even at this early stage of normalisation, potential areas of competition are already evident. Mr Obama announced that Google would help build up Cuba's Internet infrastructure, an effort that Chinese company Huawei has already begun.

Will it be the best of both worlds for Havana?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Cuba to get best of both worlds?'. Print Edition | Subscribe