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China’s Plans for Latin America Go Beyond Spying from Cuba

China's Xi Jinping. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
China's Xi Jinping

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the defining events of the Cold War. Moscow’s bid to place missiles on the island erased the protective buffer of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, bringing the Soviet threat to the edge of our own shores.

In the New Cold War, America faces a very different adversary in China. Going forward, Cuba is poised to remain an important factor in this conflict. But China’s actions in the Western Hemisphere extend far beyond Cuba. Their spying operations are just a small part of Beijing’s growing influence in Latin America.

Eyes From Cuba

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that China will pay Cuba billions of dollars to build a new facility to surveil the continental United States. Chinese intelligence services would reportedly use this to further monitor maritime traffic and electronic communications from the U.S.

The Biden administration quickly and publicly rebuked the report as not accurate. An anonymous administration official, however, later acknowledged that China has been operating at a base in Cuba since at least 2019. The official noted that China “conducted an upgrade of its intelligence collection facilities in Cuba in 2019,” which have been “well-documented in the intelligence record.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus was surprised to hear the Biden administration initially deny the report, noting that China has maintained a presence in Cuba for many years. Even if China has been spying from Cuba for years, it is now up to the administration to combat these efforts.

In 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) publicly referred to a “Chinese listening station in Bejucal,” a town just south of Havana. In 2018, satellite images indeed appeared to show a newly constructed radar surveillance installation there. The latest round of reporting suggests that a new deal may involve the construction of another facility or an expansion of the existing installation.

The Biden administration official acknowledged that the U.S. is “not making enough progress and needed a more direct approach” to counter Chinese spying activities. This is true, especially given that China’s reach extends far beyond Cuba.

Encroaching on the Panama Canal

Earlier this year, the Commander of SOUTHCOM signaled concern that companies tied to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) control critical sections of the Panama Canal, through which a substantial share of U.S. international trade crosses every year. Naturally, any disruption to free passage through the canal for U.S. military or commercial vessels would pose a grave threat to U.S. national security interests.

Since the turn of the century, the PLA has conducted more than 200 senior leader visits to Latin America and the Caribbean and reportedly operates 11 satellite tracking bases throughout the region. China also built a space ground station in Argentina, operated by China’s military, which likely has both civilian and military purposes.

China’s influence efforts are working. This year, following aggressive Chinese lobbying and financial commitments, Honduras severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It recently opened an embassy in Beijing. Only 13 countries now continue to recognize Taiwan, including seven in Latin America and the Caribbean. China also convinced Honduras to join its Belt and Road Initiative, bringing the total of participating Latin American and Caribbean countries to 22.  

Simply blaming the problem on a previous administration is hardly a strategy for countering malign Chinese activities in our own hemisphere. In the short term, the Biden administration should halt its renewed push for engagement with the Chinese Communist Party and resume a series of competitive actions that it has halted in anticipation of improving relations with Beijing. 

The U.S. cannot want engagement more than China does, and Beijing has yet to show any interest in addressing Washington’s many worries. These concerns cover everything from gross human rights violations and corporate espionage, China’s role in the fentanyl epidemic, and its military intimidation of Taiwan and other U.S. allies and partners in the Asian-Pacific region.

Outside the White House, the House Select Committee on China should consider holding a public hearing on China’s malign influence in Latin America and solicit additional recommendations from witnesses.

It’s a New Cold War. Act Like It

From the Panama Canal to military exercises, China is now a major player in America’s backyard. The U.S. needs to get serious about establishing and resourcing an Atlantic Strategy. This should be a component of the next National Security Strategy. In addition to making necessary tradeoffs and investments in the Indo-Pacific, this Atlantic Strategy should focus specifically on the Western Hemisphere. China is not just a Pacific threat — it is a global threat.

Thankfully, Chinese spy stations in Cuba will not result in a New Cuban Missile Crisis. But this development is yet another sign that the U.S. and China are in a New Cold War. It is time to start acting like it.

Andrew J. Harding is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center and co-editor of “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China”

Written By

Andrew J. Harding, a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, is co-editor of “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China.”