Since 2019, China has operated military and intelligence facilities in Cuba and has continued to expand its intelligence gathering capabilities around the world. Biden Administration officials said China “undertook an upgrade of its intelligence gathering facilities in Cuba in 2019” under the Trump administration and described the challenge as “inherited”.
“This is well documented in intelligence records,” the official said.
A CNN report acknowledged that China had been spying on the US from Cuba-based sites for years after the White House denied reports earlier this week that China was planning to build a new signal intelligence facility on the island.
On June 9, 2023, a classified intelligence report by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) stated that China had entered into a nondisclosure agreement to build a reconnaissance base in Cuba, which could monitor the communications of the southeastern United States.
This information was disclosed by an intelligence official from the United States (US), whose identity was kept secret. According to him, China has signed deals worth billions of dollars to be able to build the spying facility. The official said the surveillance base in Cuba would allow China to conduct espionage by gathering electronic information from the US, such as emails, phone calls to satellite transmissions. The electronic wiretapping facility is only 100 miles (about 160 km) off the coast of Florida. Meanwhile, Florida itself is the headquarters of the US Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.
Purpose of Chinese Intelligence Activities in Cuba
Chinese intelligence activities are designed to support the overall goals of the Chinese Communist Party. They want to maintain and expand China’s security interests, whether military, diplomatic or economic; they want to support China’s economic growth and expansion through intellectual property theft, through co-opting universities and corporations to steal what they can, and to exploit America’s open and collaborative corporate and economic and academic structures to their own advantage. There is a large transfer of intellectual property going on.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping pursued a far more assertive foreign policy than any of his predecessors during his last decade in power. This can be seen how Xi consistently emphasizes enhancing intelligence capabilities, modernizing technology, and improving coordination among various security agencies. China’s main intelligence activities fall under a department within the People’s Liberation Army and its civilian agency known as the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Another weapon of the PKI apparatus also played a role in activities outside of conventional intelligence gathering.
MSS, founded in 1983, oversees intelligence and counterintelligence both inside and outside China. His delivery has prompted analogies with the combined CIA and Federal Intelligence Bureau. But the Beijing-headquartered MSS is even more secretive without even a public website explaining its activities.
The agency is “expected to play a more significant role in China’s domestic and international security and stability” in the coming years, amid increasing challenges at home and abroad.
In the context of China’s increasing influence and geopolitical friction, experts say it is not surprising that Beijing is suspected of seeking to build or expand surveillance facilities in Cuba or elsewhere around the world with the US as the primary, but not the only, target.
Cuba reflects China’s geopolitical goals for expansion and assiduous government investment in Latin America, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, the Caribbean. This includes building support for China’s economic and political ambitions and to gain access to critical resources, in particular, rare materials essential for the energy transition of lithium, cobalt, etc. This is exactly the same as what they’re doing in Africa, but closer to the coast and starting to actually violate core US interests.
United States concerns
News of a deal to build Chinese spy facilities in Cuba has prompted a strong response from Capitol Hill. In a joint statement, Senator Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Republican panel member, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, said they were “deeply disturbed by reports that Havana and Beijing are working together to target the United States and our people.”
The White House initially called the WSJ report “false”. However, in its press release, the government finally acknowledged how the threat of Chinese espionage in Cuba had been known for a long time.
On June 19, 2023, the historic visit of the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken to China, became the first visit by a top US diplomat for the world’s second economic powerhouse since Joe Biden came to power. During the visit, Blinken was asked about a Wall Street Journal report which stated that Beijing and Havana were discussing setting up a joint military training facility in Cuba.
“This is something we will be monitoring very, very closely and we have been very clear about that. And we will protect our homeland, we will protect our interests,” he said.
Two sources familiar with intelligence confirmed to CNN that recent US intelligence reports found that China and Cuba were close to reaching a deal to set up the facility, but no agreement had yet been reached.
One source said that when completed, the facility has the potential to host as many as several hundred Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops. The intelligence is seen by some who see it as China’s response to US military activity in Taiwan, which is roughly the same distance from mainland China as Cuba is from Florida.
CNN reported in February 2023 that the US plans to increase the number of US troops training Taiwanese troops on the self-governing island, according to US officials.
A senior administration official told CNN they couldn’t confirm or comment on reports about the facility specifically, but said “we continue to be concerned about China’s longstanding activity with Cuba. China will continue to try to increase its presence in Cuba, and we will continue to try to disrupt it. We remain confident that we can fulfill all of our security commitments domestically and in the region.”
CNN reported earlier in June 2023 that Cuba agreed to allow China to build a spying facility on the island that would allow China to eavesdrop on electronic communications across the southeastern US, and that such a facility had existed on the island since at least 2019. Cuba and China also share intelligence regularly, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
Chinese and Cuban Responses to US Claims
On June 12, 2023, through a regular press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, addressed the Biden administration’s claims that China had been spying on the US from Cuba to provide false information and criticized the US government and media for releasing what it called inconsistent information.
“Over the past two days, we have seen the US government and media release a lot of inconsistent information about the so-called accusations… This is a display of ‘the US is against each other’,” Wang said.
Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio also dismissed the Journal’s report, calling it a US engineering intended to justify a decades-old US economic embargo on the island nation. He said Cuba rejected all foreign military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruni Rodriguez further said that the report was a fabrication meant to further the US’ own political goals.
It can be analyzed that what the US is doing is in accordance with Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism perspective. In the perspective of neorealism from Kenneth Waltz, international structure is emphasized as an important factor in shaping state behavior, because the international system does not have a world government that is considered effective so that states act in anarchy and interact in conditions of uncertainty.
Neorealism Waltz recognizes that the state acts based on rational calculations regarding its strength so that it prioritizes security by trying to defend itself and prevent the domination of other countries. In this case, the US seeks to prevent cooperation between China and Cuba because of fears of dominance by the two when they become a unified force.
In developing the theory of Neorealism, Hans Morgenthau also emphasized the existence of basic principles emphasizing competition, strength, power, national interests, and diplomacy. The US accusations against China and Cuba show concerns that military strength if the two join forces can lead to competition, weaken US power and control over China and Cuba, and affect US national interests. The issue of Taiwan and economic competition are the reasons underlying the US accusations. Plus America has an unstable relationship with both countries.
The US acts as an actor who sees other actors on the international stage such as the international structure. The US sees China starting to spread its influence from Asia, Europe, to Latin America, including Cuba, which is one of China’s efforts to become the strongest in the international structure to defeat the US. This aims to maintain an anarchic international structure so that there is no power other than the US on the international stage.
Previously, Cuba had also been used as a military base for the Soviet Union because of its very strategic location and could attack the US at any time. The US-China trade war and the strengthening of Sino-Cuban relations are also afraid of the same thing. In addition, Cuba and China also share the same ideology of communism and state goals, so that solidarity and good relations are more easily established.
As evidence mounts that China is poised to take full advantage of Cuba’s geographic proximity to America, it is only natural that world powers such as the United States are increasingly wary of Chinese attempts to set up puppet states as Chinese intelligence headquarters. The Wall Street Journal report mentions China’s plan to build a new ‘espionage’ facility in Cuba, which is only 100 miles from the southern region of Florida, USA. Remember, Florida is home to critical US military command centers and bases. It is also a major financial technology and services center. If a collection center in Cuba were to operate, it would certainly pose a risk to US national security.
However, far more important, and far more dangerous, are Chinese cyber operations aimed at the US government and US companies and academics. That means getting more, not only from their secret collection, but also in terms of assembling a publicly available or commercially available data repository of the enormous amount of data that will be sent to China to feed their work on artificial intelligence as they seek to get to the digital high ground. China wants to build 5G network digital infrastructure, network routers, undersea cables, satellite networks to gain economic and military competitive advantages.
There are no weapons or quick fixes to get around any of this. Most important in countering China’s espionage efforts are, firstly, a strong educational campaign for companies, government agencies and universities to become aware of the threat and take appropriate measures to protect themselves, whether that is focusing on insider threats or ensuring the security of their respective cyber networks. The second is working with the law enforcement activities carried out by the FBI and the intelligence community to uncover espionage operations and unmask agents operating and arrest those who cooperate with these agents. The US must create a hostile environment for espionage operations against its interests.