What to make of reports that Cuba will host a Chinese spy base
Just when China and America seemed to be moving past the spy-balloon saga in February, a new flashpoint has emerged in the form of an alleged plan for China to set up a listening station in Cuba. Chinese and Cuban authorities have reached a secret agreement to establish an electronic ear facility, the Wall Street Journal statement on June 8, citing unidentified American officials. Other institutions, such as the New York Times and politics, have since filed similar reports. The Iris China said it had agreed to pay Cuba several billion dollars in the deal.
The White House, the Pentagon and the Cuban government all denied the reports. “We are not aware that China and Cuba are developing a new type of spy station,” said Brigadier-General Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman. John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the American government had serious concerns about China’s relationship with Cuba, but he was confident that it would meet America’s security commitments at home and in the region.
The reports nevertheless prompted an uproar from China hawks in Congress, posing a new challenge to President Joe Biden’s recent efforts to resume high-level exchanges with China. “We urge the Biden administration to take steps to prevent this grave threat to our national security and sovereignty,” top lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee said in a joint statement. We are very disappointed,” said Mark Warner, the Democrat who chairs the panel, and Marco Rubio, the Republican vice president.
The strategic significance of such an agreement remains unclear. China has long been reported to have a small military presence in Cuba as well as access to listening stations at Bejucal, near Havana, and at Santiago de Cuba on the southeast coast. China is also believed to have several other such facilities around the world, including one in Argentina. America is believed to have plenty of its own as well, including some close to China, and American naval vessels and aircraft regularly conduct surveillance operations off China’s coast.
Nevertheless, a new listening station about 100 miles (160km) off the coast of Florida could increase China’s ability to monitor electronic communications, ship and aircraft movements, and other potentially sensitive activity around the southeastern United States, which is home to several important military bases. It would undoubtedly raise concerns among American and allied officials about what they say are efforts by China to expand its military presence and intelligence operations around the world, while at the same time mediating -more aggressive attitudes towards American and allied surveillance activities around its own borders.
The Chinese plans reported in Cuba are also going to provoke a strong political response in America because there is a hawkish feeling towards China among the public and on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Cuba’s involvement is all the more compelling because of its role in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s decision to deploy nuclear-capable missiles there in 1962 led to an American standoff that became almost becomes an atomic war. Cuba also hosted the largest Soviet overseas listening station at Lourdes, near Havana, and allowed Russia to use it until the early 2000s.
Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman who chairs the new bipartisan House of Representatives Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, attacked the Cuban missile crisis in response to the reported plan. It “reminds us that we are in a New Cold War that has, once again, come to our doorstep,” he said in a statement, calling for a ban on outbound investment into China and on land purchases Chinese near American military bases. “We must make it clear, as President Kennedy said more than 60 years ago on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ‘One path we will never choose, and that is the path of surrender or claim.'” Nikki Haley, the Republican presidential candidate wrote on Twitter: “Joe Biden needs to wake up to the real Chinese threats on our doorstep.”
A listening station is a very small threat compared to nuclear missiles. But the potential for overreaction in the current political climate became apparent in February when a US fighter jet shot down a high-altitude balloon that the Pentagon said was part of a Chinese spy operation. around the world and had been monitoring American military installations. China said it was monitoring the weather and blew off course, but America rejected that explanation and canceled a planned visit to Beijing by Antony Blinken, the secretary of state.
That stalled efforts to revive high-level talks that had stalled after a visit to Taiwan in August by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives at the time. Meetings between some senior officials have resumed in recent weeks, including a secret trip to Beijing in May by the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns. Jake Sullivan, America’s national security adviser, also held talks with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna that month. Mr Blinken’s trip is said to have been rescheduled for some time in June. However, neither side has confirmed that yet.
China has forged close ties with Cuba since the end of the cold war and is now its largest trading partner and one of its largest lenders. America severed diplomatic ties with Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro’s communist regime came to power in 1959 and only restored them in 2014. Former president Donald Trump imposed sanctions on the country while he was in office. Mr. Biden has raised some of these. America also continues to operate a military base in Guantánamo Bay in what Cuba says is an illegal settlement on its territory. America has used the base as a signal intelligence station in the past. ■