Washington — The revelation of a Chinese spy base in Cuba, 90 miles from U.S. soil, complicates relations between Washington and Beijing, which have been tense, especially since the balloon incident in February, to the dangerous approach of Chinese ships and fighter jets to their American counterparts in the South China Sea in recent days.
CNN, citing senior U.S. officials, said China was in talks with Cuba to establish a foothold there for the purpose of spying on the United States, "in a provocative move similar to the atmosphere of the Cold War."
China is in direct talks with Cuba to establish a base in the island nation just 90 miles from the United States, which would allow Beijing to gather intelligence on the southeastern parts of America, home to several key military installations and industries, the officials said. The officials said evidence of negotiations had emerged in recent weeks.
What is China watching?
President Joe Biden sent CIA Director Bill Burns to Beijing last month for talks with Chinese officials, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also expected to visit China before the end of the month.
The source familiar with the intelligence told the network that the various military and intelligence sites held by China in Cuba are part of the "long history" of cooperation between the two countries, and "part of China's strategy to align itself with other authoritarian countries that can promote its national security interests."
The source said Chinese military and intelligence sites were monitoring maritime traffic and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo. With many communications moving from physical lines and cables to wireless communications, China will move to try to monitor them as well, he said.
Jonathan Akov, an intelligence and national security studies expert at coastal Carolina University who previously worked as a military analyst at the National Bureau of Asian Research, says Cuba has always been a site of espionage and eavesdropping centers for the United States, something that did not subside after the end of the Cold War.
That's why, according to Akov, the U.S. government maintains a large compound dedicated to jamming Cuban radio propaganda at the naval base on the Key West Peninsula in Florida's southernmost state. It also maintains a smaller site used to broadcast Radio Martí to Cuba. Thus, "Cuba has never ceased to serve as a site for cross-border information operations and signal intelligence activities".
Republicans blame Biden
Meanwhile, former Republican officials are exploiting these developments to attack what they describe as the Biden administration's "reluctance" in the face of China's rising influence in the world.
Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (during President Donald Trump) and presidential candidate, said: "This month alone, China harassed us and threatened a fighter jet and a U.S. military ship. Now, China is setting up a spy base in Cuba as Biden expresses concern about China's green energy policies." "Biden needs to wake up to real Chinese threats on our doorstep," she quipped.
Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state under President Trump, tweeted, "This is dangerous for every American, and this is the price of weakness."
In a statement, Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the House counter-China Committee, said the Biden administration should consider retaliatory measures, including "terminating licenses to deal with Huawei, restricting foreign investment in critical sectors of China, and preventing the Chinese Communist Party's purchase of land near U.S. military bases."
The dilemma of approaching the American homeland
Professor Akoff says – in his interview with Al Jazeera Net – that "the news of the Chinese spy base is not at all surprising, China has grown increasingly in the Western Hemisphere. But given the nature of relations between Washington and Beijing now, any change in the status quo is seen as dangerous."
This is especially true of these activities in Cuba, given its proximity to the U.S. mainland, and the history of the Cuban government's relationship with the Soviet Union and revolutionary communist groups during the Cold War.
"Any Chinese involvement with Cuba is seen by the United States as a threat. Now that Cuba and China are in a formal intelligence-sharing relationship, China has a foothold like never before, and this is a danger even though its extent and nature are difficult to determine."
Many reports confirm China's interest in gathering intelligence from US military facilities and organizations located in the South America, especially in Florida, where the US Joint Command for the Middle East (CINTCOM) is based in Tampa, and the Southern Joint Command (Southcom) in Miami.
According to Akov, some information can be gathered through a geographical presence closer to the targets. But he believes that "this discussion may be a bit exaggerated in the press, as China already has a strong remote sensing capability from its spy satellites, which allows it to collect a great deal of data."
A base closer to the United States would enhance the ability to unload information about everything from naval air operations to unencrypted communications between service members on their cell phones, he estimates.
However, Acoff says the U.S. has extensive experience in the practice of securing communications with respect to Cuba as a listening and eavesdropping location, "and it's unclear to me how the Chinese base can overcome these cyber obstacles."
Part of the U.S.-China competition
Akoff considers the Chinese base another example of the ongoing competition between the United States and China, which occurs in every corner of the planet: "Every country makes moves that raise the costs of competition with adversaries, and this is perhaps another example of the high costs of this competition, as the United States is likely to have to invest a lot of time and money in compensating for Chinese surveillance."
Since the United States may not know the exact capabilities of the Chinese plant, the American expert believes that countermeasures are likely to be costly and widespread, and that this is only the military aspect of intelligence competition.
According to him, U.S. and European companies have very little counter-surveillance capacity compared to the assets China can use, "and China has always been as interested in economic intelligence as it is in gathering military intelligence."
Because many of these companies engage in dual-use and other sensitive activities such as aerospace technology, Akoff says China's commercial gains from Cuba's surveillance program could be significant, depending on its extent and U.S. countermeasures, "both of which are not yet known."