Hu's Cuba visit highlights China's growing LatAm clout

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Nov. 17, 2008 at 10:24 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- Chinese President Hu Jintao Monday proclaimed his huge nation's commitment to boosting its power in the Western Hemisphere by paying a state visit to Cuba.

To add insult to injury for lame-duck U.S. President George W. Bush, Hu flew to Cuba, a nation Bush has tried to keep in quarantine during his eight years in office, immediately after attending the Group of 20 major nations' emergency financial summit in Washington. He flew there via a short visit to Costa Rica.

Chinese Ambassador to Cuba Zhao Rongxian told China's official Xinhua news agency that Hu wanted ''to further promote the close ties between both countries."

China is now far more important economically to Cuba than its historic ally and protector Russia. Beijing has become the communist-led Caribbean island's second-largest trading partner after Venezuela. Zhao said their total volume of trade in 2007 was worth $2.3 billion.

The ambassador also said bilateral cooperation was also rapidly expanding in transportation, communication, agriculture and education.

China does not have the strategic military power that Russia can bring to Latin America. The Kremlin sent two Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack supersonic nuclear bombers to Venezuela for a week in September, and they practiced long-range patrol patterns in the Caribbean Sea. The two aircraft together had the capability to fire 24 nuclear-capable, 2,000-mile-range KH-55 air-launched cruise missiles into the heart of the United States. China cannot provide any comparable military or strategic muscle to Cuba, Venezuela or their neighbors.

However, economically, China is pumping far more investment and economic clout into Latin America. Beijing's economic and political ties with Brazil are extremely close, and the two nations cooperate especially closely as BRIC -- Brazil-Russia-India-China major emerging economies -- partners.

So far in Cuba the growing Chinese presence has not been expressed in much direct investment. However, Beijing has provided plenty of credit to buy Chinese exports.

Hu also squeezed in his visit 10 days before Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was due to visit the island on a Caribbean swing that will focus on Venezuela. Medvedev's trip to Caracas, where he will be warmly welcomed by fiercely anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has been scheduled to coincide with a Nov. 24-30 visit to Venezuela by a powerful Russian naval squadron consisting of the missile battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky ("Peter the Great") and the anti-submarine war combat vessel Admiral Chabanenko.

Hu and Medvedev's eagerness to risk Washington's wrath by honoring the most anti-U.S. leaders in the Western Hemisphere may be in part a calculated insult to Bush during his lame-duck incumbency for the next two months until he is replaced by President-elect Barack Obama. They may also, however, signal a much more calculated defiance of Washington by Russia and China in the Western Hemisphere once Obama takes office.

For Russia and China are both working energetically to take advantage of the United States' faltering influence in the Latin American region -- America's own "near abroad." Russia and China have been expanding their influence in Latin America at U.S. expense, and they have been using Cuba and especially Venezuela as close partners in the process. It has been a process pursued with both an economic and security dimension.

As UPI's John Sweeney reported Oct. 31, the Chavez government also is expanding defense and security ties with China.

During his visit to Beijing on Sept. 24, Chavez signed an agreement to purchase 24 Chinese-made K-8 light attack aircraft, which Venezuelan air force officials say will be used for training purposes. The K-8s, which are scheduled to arrive in Venezuela during 2009, will operate from the Teniente Vicente Landaeta Gil Air Base near the city of Barquisimeto in Lara state, Sweeney reported.

The Bush administration has largely ignored Latin America during its eight years in office while obsessing on Iraq. Hu's visit to Cuba Monday, coupled with expanding Chinese influence throughout the region, demonstrates that a price is going to be paid for that neglect.

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