How Rubio Can Fix His Cuba Double Standard: Tell U.S. To Break China Ties

Jun 3, 2015

Florida Senator Marco Rubio addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year.
Credit Carolyn Kaster / AP

I’m waiting any moment now for Marco Rubio to demand that President Obama recall our ambassador to China and shut down our embassy there.

That’s because the junior senator from Florida – and now Republican presidential candidate – has decided to get tough on China. In an article posted today on the National Review, Rubio declared that the communist regime in Beijing “has gotten a free pass” for far too long and that it’s got to start answering for its often brutal human rights abuses.

All I can say is: Hear, hear, Senator! It’s exciting to see Rubio take this bold stand after, well, giving China a free pass for far too long. Like the time – just last year, actually – he let Beijing pay for a junket his aides took to the People’s Republic for friendly talks on trade and foreign policy.

Rubio finally seems to be addressing his double-standard problem. He’s decided to confront China the way he and the rest of the Cuban-American congressional caucus insist we stand up to communist Cuba. And I’m assuming that means: No more diplomatic relations with China.

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Right, Senator?

Taking that policy stand is really the only way to shake off the hypocrisy issue as he heads into the GOP primaries next year.

After all, Rubio told the Obama Administration this week he’ll block any attempt to install an ambassador in Havana once the U.S. and Cuba finish normalizing relations this year. Rubio reiterated his position that the U.S. has no business restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, which were severed in 1961, until the Castro regime demonstrates “concrete” democratic change.

Rubio's National Review essay states quite explicitly that China hasn’t conceded anything concrete, either. “Even with China’s economic growth,” Rubio writes, “we have yet to see political openness follow.” Repression, he says, “continues to be the order of the day.”

Rubio's inconsistency ultimately undermines his credibility on Cuba. It gives off the impression that his agenda there is based less on principled policy and more on personal petulance.

So the only logically consistent action Rubio can take now is call for Max Baucus, the U.S. ambassador to China, to book a one-way fare from Beijing to Washington, D.C.

And while he’s at it, Rubio needs to demand we recall ambassadors from the world’s other two remaining communist countries with whom we have diplomatic relations, Vietnam and Laos, which aren't exactly democratic Shangri-Las themselves.

None of this, of course, will ever happen, because taking those stands would make Rubio look like a foreign policy goofball instead of a serious contender to be the next commander-in-chief.

But what Rubio doesn’t seem to realize is that holding that same ground on Cuba doesn’t make him look all that serious anymore, either.

Even a majority of Cuban-Americans now agree with Obama’s policy of engaging Cuba. They believe it could yield more long-term change on the island than 56 years of futile screaming at the island have.

So here’s how Rubio can fix his double-standard problem: When it comes to Cuba he can follow the same reasonable, engage-but-be-firm approach on China that he actually sets out in today's National Review article.

Rubio writes that despite Beijing’s “grim” human rights profile, “I believe change is coming to China. Systems of government that are built on repression do not stand the test of time…While the road to reform in China is uncertain, American support for the ideals that are at the heart of our own experience in self-governance ought to be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.”

NIXON IN CHINA

In that vein, Rubio might just as well ask: How much worse would China's system be today if President Nixon hadn't visited the country in 1972? Engaging China, not isolating it, has helped lead it toward the change that Rubio believes is coming.

And that's precisely what Obama believes regarding Cuba. It's the same argument, in fact, that he made when he announced the normalization project last December.

Rubio, sadly, isn’t likely to take that commonsense turn. So when the Chinese regime unjustly jails a dissident – say, journalist Gao Yu, who in April was sent to prison for seven years on what rights groups call bogus charges – he counsels engagement. When the Cuban regime unjustly jails a dissident, he blocks ambassador nominations.

But that double standard ultimately undermines Rubio’s credibility on Cuba. It gives off the impression that his agenda there is based less on principled policy and more on personal petulance.

And that has gotten a free pass for far too long.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.