Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

What Should the US Do About China’s Spy Facility in Cuba?

News that China plans to establish a signals and electronics intelligence station on the island carries echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What Should the US Do About China’s Spy Facility in Cuba?
Credit: Depositphotos

In early June, a Wall Street Journal report revealed a deal worth “several billions of dollars” between the Chinese and Cuban governments to install a signals and electronics intelligence (SIGINT and ELINT) collection facility at the western end of the island in Bejucal, about 160 kilometers away from the U.S. mainland.

The move provided a flashback to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, in which the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. At that time, the Soviets also had an intelligence collection base on the island.

Dr. Evan Ellis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Diplomat that the deal “appears to be an extension of the agreement that China signed with Cuba at the turn of the millennium, that was widely reported on but never officially confirmed, to give China access to Soviet-era ELINT listening facilities at Lourdes and also possibly in Santiago.”

U.S. territories within reach of the facility house many important military and intelligence facilities. This includes the Guantanamo Bay military and detention complex, the Joint Intelligence Operations Coordination Center, the FBI Miami Field Office, and the U.S. Southern Command. U.S. Central Command, based in Tampa, would also be within reach. Dan Hoffman, who served as a senior clandestine services officer and station chief with the CIA, said that China could use the station as a “beachhead for collection against the United States.”

Initially, U.S., Chinese, and Cuban officials all categorically denied the allegations, with White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby saying the report was “not accurate.” Vice Foreign Minister of Cuba Carlos Fernández de Cossio called it “totally mendacious and unfounded.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the report “false information” and denied the existence of the Cuban facility.

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Since the revelation, however, the White House has admitted that the deal exists. In fact, the Biden administration revealed that China has operated the facility in Cuba since 2019, in a move to expand its intelligence capabilities and reach within the hemisphere. Despite the development, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken still went on an official visit to China, starting June 18.

China’s Intelligence Capabilities in Latin America

The facility in Cuba, though quite alarming for U.S. security and defense interests, is not the first time that China has set up intelligence facilities in the Western hemisphere. There was, of course, the Chinese surveillance balloon that traveled over North and South America before being shot down in February.

According to the Center for a Secure Free Society and Diálogo Americas, China has a total of 11 satellite ground stations in Latin America, the details of most of which remain unknown.

The Chinese Santiago Satellite Station in Chile has immense collection capabilities, helping collect data on international space expeditions as well as ground communications in the hemisphere.

In Argentina, China already has a ground radar station in Neuquén, the Lejano Space Station, built in 2017. The land contract for the land lease stipulated that Argentina “not interfere with or interrupt” China’s activities at Lejano, thus severely restricting information and oversight. Former U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander, Adm. Craig Faller, has previously raised concerns over China’s ability to collect data on “U.S., allied, and partner space activities” from the station.

China is also pushing to build a naval base on the Argentine coast, near Ushuaia, which could be its second overseas military base, in addition to the 40 Chinese owned or operated maritime ports in Latin America, some of which China allegedly uses for military activities.

China has also provided surveillance and satellite equipment to various countries in the hemisphere, including building Bolivia’s largest two ground satellites, which could be equipped with back-end access devices for Beijing.

China operates at least six overseas police stations in Latin America, including in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Quito. The Chinese government claims they are meant to “help Chinese citizens overseas with administrative issues, such as renewing driving licenses.” But, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies claim that they are meant to spy on Chinese-born foreigners, many of whom are citizens of their new countries, and to forestall organized resistance against the Chinese Communist Party regime.

All of these intelligence assets and technologies are employed by China to collect data and information on U.S., allied, and local assets and capabilities. They are also, especially in the case of the police stations, meant to maintain China’s tight political grip on citizens who have gone overseas, impeding their freedom of movement, association, and expression.

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Jim Olson, the former chief of counterintelligence at CIA, told The Diplomat that the proximity to the United States made Cuba “an excellent SIGINT platform.” He added, “tensions with the United States are heating up, and it is likely that the PLA has been tasked to expand its collection against the United States; an obvious place to do that is Cuba.”

What Cuba Stands to Gain

In Cuba’s case, the deal will help prop up its crumbling economy.

“I think it shows the level of desperation for cash by the Cubans, given the number of people who are leaving Cuba right now, given the lack of food, medicine, gasoline, and other supplies,” Ellis said.

Olsen concluded that “it is a winner for Cuba because of the ‘rent’ it charges and also for the intelligence it gains from sharing agreements.” He said that the arrangement is likely also appealing to Cuba given that it will help undermine U.S. power in the region. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel “is just as fiercely anti-American as the Castro brothers were, and he would find it appealing, I’m sure, to stick his fingers into the Yankees’ eye by cooperating with Russia and China,” Olson said. China and Cuba, both communist regimes born out of the Cold War era, are aligned ideologically.

The intelligence facility allows Cuba to retaliate against the U.S. sanctions measures in place against it. The station could be a condition for Cuba to receive economic, humanitarian, and security assistance from China, considering that the island has been blocked from receiving this from the U.S. since 1959.

“On the Chinese side, I would say that it also indicates the Chinese’s willingness to take risks regarding provocation in the context of increasingly tense U.S.-Chinese relations, in order to get intel and prepare strategically for a conflict,” Ellis argued.

The U.S. Response

There are as yet no hints of the reaction from Washington. The United States, of course, has long had military assets stationed in Japan and South Korea, two of China’s immediate neighbors. Given that, some experts have downplayed the Chinese involvement in Cuba, but other intelligence and military analysts and officials are arguing that China’s aggressive intelligence and military activities in the Western hemisphere should warrant a heightened response.

Ellis, who is also a Latin America research professor at the U.S. Army War College, proposed his own course of action for the United States. “It is important that the U.S. have a very strong response,” he said, “because if we seem to suggest that this is okay, then China becomes emboldened in Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Honduras, and other parts of the region that might have the will to allow it in.”

He added, “I certainly would not recommend a kinetic response, but, at the very minimum, significant additional sanctions and the targeting of Cuban personnel associated with this —  possibly, even attempt to institute some sort of embargo with respect to the ability to bring personnel in and out of Cuba and to operate that facility.”

Olson, who spent 30 years in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, had a grimmer view of the options available. “The U.S. is powerless to do anything about it,” he said. “We simply need to be aware of what’s happening and upgrade our counterintelligence capabilities, which are sadly not now up to the task.”

Still, some of the possible responses from the U.S. could include a ramping up of counter-intelligence operations in Cuba and China and information-gathering operations to find out more about the facility’s capabilities and activities, along with a weakening of the intelligence-gathering capacity of the station. The closing or relocation of U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in Cuba could also be considered, along with further sanctions and embargoes.