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China's advice to Cuba: Good luck, but beware of American motives

[BEIJING] President Barack Obama's "historic" visit to Cuba has all the pageantry, chanting crowds and photo-op moments one would expect as an old Cold War estrangement is put to rest.

On Monday, however, China's Party-controlled press weighed in with rather less enthusiasm.

Though they took note of the "strategic vision" and "goodwill" on display in Havana, party-linked media took the chance to call attention to American "arrogance" and "interventionism" in Latin America - and warned the island about US motives.

"US President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba is seen widely as a historic move of Uncle Sam, but ultimate rapprochement with Cuba requires the United States to refrain from imposing its ideology on others and to treat others as equals," warned an opinion piece published by Xinhua, a Communist Party newswire.

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A second Xinhua piece struck a remarkably similar tone: "US President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Cuba, though a historic move, cannot reverse the fact that the United States has not yet dropped its ideology of interventionism in Latin America." The English language version of Global Times, a paper known for its nationalist diatribes, urged Cuba's leaders to proceed carefully. Washington may be trying to "foment" an Arab Spring-style "revolution," it said.

While it's not uncommon for China's state-controlled press to zoom in on real or perceived US hypocrisy, the tone of today's coverage is telling. Clearly, they see a US-Cuba thaw as a threat - and a bit of a betrayal.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has long seen Cuba as a Communist comrade-in-arms. Former President Jiang Zemin visited in 1993 and 2001 and his successor, Hu Jintao, stopped by in 2004.

When Xi Jinping visited the island in July 2014, he rounded out his trip with a stop at the barracks where Fidel Castro launched the first armed assault of the 1953 revolution.

"China and Cuba, as fellow socialist countries, are closely linked by the same visions, ideals and goals," Xi said at the time.

The bonds of Socialist brotherhood found expression that summer in the signing of some 29 bilateral trade agreements, with deals in fields ranging from finance, to agriculture, to energy and - naturally - golf.

China is Cuba's second-largest trading partner, after Venezuela, and a key source of credit to the island's embargo-choked economy. But the total volume of trade remains, particularly by Chinese standards.

Both sides seem keen to change that. Trade between the two countries rose 57 per cent in the first three months of 2015, according the Chinese embassy in Havana.

In December of that year, Air China launched a thrice-weekly direct flight to Havana - an effort they hope will see ever-more Chinese tourists strolling along the Malecón. There are already more than a dozen Chinese-linked resort projects in the works, according to Xinhua, representing about US$460 million in Chinese investment.

Of course, the United States also wants in on the action. Obama was accompanied on Air Force One by the CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts. Starwood this weekend became the first US hotel chain in decades to sign a deal in Cuba.

That clearly did not please Beijing. The editorials published Monday urge Cuba to stick with the socialist set rather than side with the capitalist newcomers.

"Yes, Obama's visit is commendable for indicating the possibility of communication and collaboration between countries with divergent ideologies," said one of the Xinhua editorials. "But Washington needs to offer substantive and sufficient compensation to the island country to pay for its past wrongdoings."

As if to underscore the potential economic rivalries, Starwood signed a deal on Saturday to manage three hotels in Cuba, and on Monday picked a sweetened buyout offer from Marriott over a pitch by a major Chinese-led insurance group.