Geopolitics Non-Military Security

Chinese spy base on Cuba indicates Havana’s deepening relations with U.S. rivals

Štefan Talarovič

The US claims China operates a spy base in Cuba to intercept US electronic communications. Beijing’s intelligence activity is believed to be located in the village of Bejucal, which once harbored Soviet nuclear warheads from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The base thus lies less than 200km off the coast of Florida, posing a major security challenge to Washington’s interests. Chinese espionage activities on the island are another argument for the US to disrupt the rapprochement of communist elites in Cuba with China and geopolitical rivals such as the Russian Federation or theocratic Iran. 

According to the latest US government report, Beijing’s intensified spying activities are expected to take place as early as 2019 as part of a global effort to expand its intelligence capabilities. The US military’s Southern and Central Commands could become targets of signals intelligence (SIGINT), with maritime traffic and the US military base in Guantanamo also potentially being subject to monitoring. However, it is estimated that such capabilities are so far fully developed only in mainland China. Despite the so-called Strategic Support Force operating the Beidou global navigation satellite system, Beijing still lacks a sufficiently robust system of alliances to make the actions of Chinese security forces an imminent threat to US national security. Among the officials of the US security apparatus, it was the spokesman of the US National Security Council, John Kirby, who set the record straight regarding the initial reporting of the Wall Street Journal, adding that they have already been monitoring these activities since 2019. On the other hand, Chinese diplomatic spokesman Wang Wenbin accused Washington of spreading rumors and baseless slander. At the same time, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla called it an attempt to justify the long-standing trade embargo imposed on Havana.

The media coverage of these allegations comes at a time when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Beijing in a show of restraint to normalise relations between the world’s two most powerful economies. The escalation has been sparked by differing positions regarding Taiwan’s political status, the strategic role of the South China Sea and the presence of a spy device in US airspace over sensitive military sites in February 2023.

Initially, China built its global influence through an economic initiative called the New Silk Road, which secured infrastructure investment of various kinds in the form of non-transparent loans not only for countries in the Latin American region. In recent years, however, there has been speculation about Beijing’s efforts to transform the status quo across strategic regions. The so-called ‘Project 141’ is supposedly used for drawing up plans to build overseas military bases for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, for example, in the Solomon Islands.

Havana’s willingness to deepen cooperation with foreign partners that have largely antagonistic relations with Washington comes at a time of severe economic crisis. The fall in tourism revenues, which has not yet recovered from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, has only intensified the rise in inflation, including the price of staple foodstuffs, mostly imported from abroad. Together with the unequal monetary arrangement and the tightening of US sanctions, poverty and income inequality in Cuban society are worsening, and so are the efforts to emigrate from the country. The operation of a spy station on the island would represent a significant incentive of several billion dollars.

Due to a dramatic fuel shortage, the focus will also be on developing relations with Iran, a significant exporter of fossil fuels. During President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit, they announced cooperation in biotechnology, power generation, as well as customs and telecommunications, among other areas. There is also speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin might decide to reopen the former Soviet intelligence base in Lourdes as one of the possible responses to the West’s support for Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion. The facilitation of access to the Cuban market for Russian businesses in the form of tariff exemptions or 30-year land leases could also be interpreted in part as an attempt to send a signal to the US and, above all, to the European Union, the dominant economic partner. Cuba is also trying to do this by maintaining its status as a mediator in the Latin American region. The agreement on a six-month ceasefire between the administration of Colombian President Gustavo Petro and the leftist extremists of the ELN (National Liberation Army) emerged precisely from the recent peace talks held under the auspices of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana.

The potential for mutual diplomatic and economic reconciliation between the US and Cuba is likely to diminish as the US trade embargo remains in place despite negative UN General Assembly resolutions. By rapprochement with Washington’s geopolitical rivals, the communist regime in Havana is, in turn, showing its unwillingness to comply with the demands of US diplomacy. Traditional espionage activities are rather symbolic for China, considering the advances in today’s technology and the island’s strategic position in the US ‘neighbourhood’. Therefore, the mainstream view in the media and among political leaders that China is the most serious global rival will persist. This is borne out by reports of plans to establish a joint training facility in Cuba under the auspices of the Chinese military.

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