The White House and Pentagon called media reports on Thursday of Chinese plans to build a spy facility in Cuba inaccurate, capping off a day in which new concerns about national security threats emanating from Beijing sparked calls for a harder line against the country.
Beijing was said to have offered Havana cash payments on the order of “several billion” US dollars to be able to build the facility, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the “secret” agreement citing US officials familiar with the plan.
The Journal and CNN both said US officials had learned of Beijing’s agreement with Havana in recent weeks and that it was not clear whether construction on the facility had begun.
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Such an outpost would be situated about 100 miles from Florida, theoretically enabling China to monitor a range of communications, including emails, phone calls and satellite transmissions across the southeastern US, where many military bases are located.
On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said that “based on the information that we have ... we are not aware of China and Cuba developing any type of spy stations”.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby separately commented on the matter. Echoing the Department of Defence, Kirby told MSNBC in an interview that the reports were “not accurate”.
He added that the Biden administration had from the beginning expressed concern about Beijing’s efforts to exert influence “around the world, certainly in this hemisphere and in this [North American] region”.
“We are watching this very, very closely. And we will continue to take steps to mitigate any potential threat that those activities might pose,” Kirby said.
Ryder sounded a similar note of alarm while noting that the relationship between China and Cuba was “something that we continuously monitor”.
“Any type of coercive belligerent activity, within our hemisphere is something that we’re watching very closely when it comes to China,” he said.
Asked about the reports, a representative of Beijing’s embassy in Washington said: “We are not aware of the case and have nothing to share at the moment.”
Meanwhile, Cuban Vice-Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio called the report “totally mendacious and unfounded”.
News of the possible facility in Cuba came four months after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was detected and downed over US territory. The incident stalled efforts to revive bilateral engagement.
Since then, high-level military-to-military dialogue has all but vanished. The Biden administration has blamed the impasse on Beijing, which spurned a Pentagon offer for talks between Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu in Singapore earlier this week.
Kurt Campbell, the White House’s national security coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, has called for a military hotline between the countries, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is reportedly trying to reschedule a visit to Beijing he postponed immediately after the balloon incident.
However, Thursday’s reports about a planned Chinese base in Cuba led members of Congress from both parties to demand that US President Joe Biden take action.
In a joint statement, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chairman Mark R. Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and the panel’s vice-chairman, Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, called on the US to respond to China’s “ongoing and brazen attacks on our nation’s security”.
“We must be clear that it would be unacceptable for China to establish an intelligence facility within 100 miles of Florida and the United States ... We urge the Biden administration to take steps to prevent this serious threat to our national security and sovereignty,” the statement read.
Nikki Haley, a former US ambassador to the United Nations now seeking the Republican presidential nomination in next year’s general election, called on Biden to “wake up to the real Chinese threats on our doorstep”.
If such a plan for a Chinese base in Cuba were under way, it would “convince more Americans that China is an enemy in a new Cold War”, according to Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute.
A Chinese base in Cuba would likely be large in scale and therefore “a destabilising factor” regardless of American listening capabilities in the western Pacific over the past 70 years, Daly said.
“China can credibly argue that establishing such a facility in the Caribbean is fair,” he added. “It cannot credibly argue that it isn’t a major new factor in a tense relationship.”
Such a move, if true, would indicate an unprecedented level of military engagement between China’s military and the countries of the Americas, according to Evan Ellis, a research professor focusing on Latin America at the US Army War College.
Describing China’s efforts in Latin America thus far as “very different”, Ellis believed that if a base plan were in the works, then “this points to the new risks President Xi [Jinping] is willing to take”, which he said was worrisome “because of the deterioration of US-China relations”.
Additional reporting by Mark Magnier in New York
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