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Analysts: China’s Plans for Cuba May Go Beyond Spy Base

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cuba's President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez walk during a welcome ceremony in Beijing, Nov. 25, 2022. They pledged mutual support over their fellow communist states' "core interests."
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping and Cuba's President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez walk during a welcome ceremony in Beijing, Nov. 25, 2022. They pledged mutual support over their fellow communist states' "core interests."

WASHINGTON — Top U.S. lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to brief Congress on the spy station China is allegedly building in Cuba, but American analysts fear that China’s plans for America’s backyard may go beyond intelligence gathering.

If a war over Taiwan were to break out, these analysts warn, the Chinese military could operate in Latin America and the Caribbean to disrupt U.S. military operations or even strike the continental U.S.

In a June 22 letter to CIA chief William Burns and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, requested that detailed information on China’s activities in Cuba be provided by July 14.

The lawmakers’ concern originated with a June 19 Wall Street Journal report quoting current and former U.S. officials as saying that China is negotiating with the Cuban government to establish a joint military training facility in the island nation just 166 kilometers from Florida. The enterprise could lead to the stationing of Chinese troops at the facility and expansion of Chinese intelligence-gathering against the U.S.

"It is imperative that we understand in full detail: the exact nature and objectives of the PRC’s intelligence gathering in Cuba and military partnership with the regime; the implications of such efforts for U.S. national interests; and what the Biden administration is doing to mitigate such efforts and deter their further expansion with Cuba and the Western Hemisphere,” the letter says.

"The American public needs to be assured that their government unequivocally condemns this escalation, and is working to do everything in its power to counter it,” the lawmakers wrote.

Some US success

Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on June 25 that Washington had made its concerns clear to Beijing and Havana and had had some success in preventing China from building military bases overseas.

Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, chairman of a select committee on U.S.-China strategic competition, told VOA Mandarin in a June 26 email, “If true, this [WSJ] report illustrates yet again why it is foolish for the Biden administration to shelve defensive actions and disclosures simply to secure a diplomatic audience with General Secretary Xi [Jinping]. The [Chinese Communist Party] is the only party seeking to upend the peaceful status quo, and prioritizing endless dialogue over competitive policies invites aggression.”

VOA Mandarin emailed the Chinese Embassy in Washington for comment on the latest developments but has not received a response. The spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on June 20 that he was unaware of this situation.

However, a June 26 op-ed in China’s official Global Times referred to U.S. alarm as “the disinformation campaign hyping up the so-called Chinese spy base in Cuba.”

If established, a Chinese facility in Cuba could have military and strategic consequences for U.S. homeland security, warned Gordon Chang, a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute think tank.

In a June 23 article, Chang wrote that adding nuclear missile silos in Cuba would give China’s People's Liberation Army the advantage of “shorter flight times" — meaning less warning time.

“Moreover, U.S. missile defenses — and radars — are currently oriented to attacks from over the Arctic, from the north. Cuba gives China venues for southern attacks.”

Intelligence gathering

David Stupples, professor of electronic and radio engineering at the City University of London, told VOA Mandarin that even if China is unable to station many troops in Cuba, Beijing’s outpost there could collect intelligence from U.S. submarines.

Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College who focuses on the region’s relationships with China and other non-Western Hemisphere actors, told VOA Mandarin that Cuba may have granted China access to three Soviet-era surveillance facilities as early as 1999 or 2000.

Ellis said the establishment of a new station would create “the opportunity for a semipermanent presence that increases the level of military collaboration and coordination” between China and Cuba.

China’s alleged expansion into America’s backyard supports its economic and political ambitions and access to critical minerals such as lithium, copper, rare earths and resources such as coal and oil.

Ellis said in a recently published paper, The Strategic Role of Latin America in a Global Conflict Over Taiwan, that part of China’s growing involvement in the Caribbean region is that five of the 14 countries in the world that continue to recognize Taiwan diplomatically are located in this region.

Ellis said China could use the proximity of Cuba to deploy special operations personnel, disrupt the U.S. military, and attack the U.S. mainland to snap key supply chains supporting U.S. defense if Beijing attacked Taiwan.

'On, near and over' US

Chang wrote, “A war in Asia will be fought on, near and over the American homeland — perhaps with nukes.”

His article also stated that China's People's Liberation Army "could deploy anti-ship cruise missiles in Cuba both to hit U.S. Navy bases in Florida and block the movement of American vessels. China might also put surface-to-air missiles on Cuba, potentially to shoot down planes over the southeast United States.”

Gallagher sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo on June 20 demanding answers on whether Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE, which operate in Cuba, are collecting intelligence on Americans and sensitive U.S. military sites from the Chinese spy base in Cuba.

Stupples said that through intellectual property theft and the development of satellite networks, “China has leapfrogged its signals intelligence capabilities over the past decade, possibly only second to the U.S. in the amount of information it gathers.”

Stupples speculated that China might bypass the supervision of the Cuban government and collect cyberintelligence through local private companies and technical personnel.

According to a background report by the Council on Foreign Relations on China’s growing influence in Latin America, China’s increased presence in Cuba is part of a buildup of military ties, including increased arms sales, military exchanges and training programs, throughout Latin America.

Venezuela remains the region's largest buyer of Chinese military equipment after the U.S. government banned all commercial arms sales to Venezuela in 2006. Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have also bought multimillion-dollar Chinese military aircraft, ground vehicles, air defense radars and assault rifles.

Spread of 'malign influence'

On March 23, U.S. Southern Command Commander Laura Richardson testified before the House Armed Services Committee that she was concerned by “the myriad of ways in which the PRC is spreading its malign influence, wielding its economic might, and conducting gray zone activities to expand its military and political access and influence.”

“The PRC is investing in critical infrastructure, including deep-water ports, cyber and space facilities which can have a potential dual use for malign commercial and military activities. In any potential global conflict, the PRC could leverage strategic regional ports to restrict U.S. naval and commercial ship access. This is a strategic risk that we can’t accept or ignore,” she said.

She mentioned “dual use” Chinese-funded or -owned civilian projects or ones that could be used for military purposes. These include at least 11 facilities Beijing is operating for tracking activities in space — including one with deep space capacities in Argentina — and surveillance capabilities.

Short of military intervention to remove China's military assets in Cuba, Ellis said the U.S. needs to show a very strong hand to demonstrate that it won’t “forgive and forget and go to the next thing.”

“I have every reason to believe the PLA is preparing for the war,” he said. “The PLA is not going to allow the U.S. to fight an away game like it fought with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.