Cuba and China have signed a cooperation plan to push forward construction projects under Beijing’s controversial overseas infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has saddled many participating countries with heavy debt loads.
The Chinese Embassy in Cuba announced the agreement on its website on Dec. 26, saying that the deal was inked two days earlier by He Lifeng, head of China’s top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, and Cuban Vice Prime Minister Ricardo Cabrisas.
The agreement implemented a memorandum of understanding the two nations signed in 2018, when Cuba agreed to become a BRI participating nation.
Under the agreement, the two nations aimed to work together on projects in several key sectors, including communications, education, health and biotechnology, science and technology, and tourism, according to the Agencia Cubana de Noticias news agency.
The Chinese Embassy also stated that a timetable and a roadmap had been proposed to implement the projects, without giving details.
China launched the BRI in 2013 in an effort to build Beijing-centered land and maritime trade networks by financing infrastructure projects throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. In recent years, critics have denounced Beijing for using “debt-trap diplomacy” to lure countries into its initiative.
Many countries have surrendered pieces of their sovereignty after failing to pay off Chinese debts. For example, China Merchants Port Holdings is now running Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease, after the South Asian country converted its owed loans of $1.4 billion into equity in 2017. Seizing the port has allowed Beijing to gain a key foothold in the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese regime has also sought to partner with countries rich in natural resources—such as African BRI participants Ghana and Zambia—in order to gain access to these raw materials to drive the Chinese economy.
It appears that China has its eyes set on Cuba’s natural resources, as a Chinese researcher told China’s state-run media outlet Global Times on Dec. 26 that the BRI agreement was good because China and Cuba “have strong economic complementarity.”
The researcher was quoted as saying that “Cuba is rich in mineral and oil resources, and is a major source of nickel ore for China.” Cuba has one of the world’s largest nickel deposits in the world.
China has been Cuba’s important energy partner. Chinese companies have supplied wind turbines to Cuba’s wind farms and overseen the construction of Cuba’s first biomass-fired power plant at Ciro Redondo.
The U.S.-based organization American Security Project, in an article published in March, warned about Cuba’s energy dependency on China and Venezuela as having “serious implications for hemispheric security.”
In addition, the Chinese paramilitary has also provided “counter-terrorism” training to the Cuban military and police forces responsible for suppressing anti-government protesters.
In fact, China has an ambition that goes beyond just Cuba. During a Senate hearing in March, Craig Faller, a retired admiral and a former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, warned (pdf) that Beijing seeks to “establish global logistics and basing infrastructure in our hemisphere in order to project and sustain military power at greater distances.”
Faller told (pdf) lawmakers at the hearing that China was on a “full-court press” in order to achieve its ambition.
“I look at this hemisphere as the front line of competition,” Faller said. “Our influence [in this hemisphere] is eroding. … It is important that we remain engaged in this hemisphere.”
During a press briefing following the hearing, Faller described the Chinese regime’s influence as “insidious,” “corrosive,” and “corrupt.”
“Some examples include their pursuit of multiple port deals, loans for political leverage, vaccine diplomacy that undermines sovereignty, state surveillance I.T., and the exploitation of resources such as illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing,” Faller said.
A month after Faller’s warning, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) introduced a bill requiring several U.S. federal agencies, including the State Department, to put together a report for Congress. The report would assess China’s influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
One of the issues the report would examine is China’s relationship with Cuba and Venezuela. Another is China’s efforts to exploit natural resources in the region.
“It is critical for U.S. policymakers to understand what China is doing in the region and to have an effective strategy in place to counter China’s aggressive conduct and to hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable for its actions,” Murphy said, according to a statement from her office.