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Is the Biden administration downplaying China’s plans for an eavesdropping post in Cuba?


Critics accuse the White House of being too eager to preserve a U.S. diplomatic trip to Beijing and of pulling its punches regarding China’s actions.

The Biden administration is trying to ensure a high-stakes visit to China by top U.S. diplomat Antony Blinken goes ahead as planned, but critics contend that the White House has repeatedly downplayed increasingly provocative actions by China in the process.

The examples extend from revelations this week about a possible Chinese plan to build an electronic listening post in Cuba to a series of tense military encounters in the Pacific between the two nations.

Blinken’s planned visit to China next week would be the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018, and comes after the Biden administration postponed an earlier scheduled trip in February after the U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon after it entered U.S. airspace, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.

Now, the White House doesn’t want another incident like the balloon episode to derail the planned talks, Western officials, congressional aides and experts told NBC News.

“They are working hard to make sure this visit happens,” said one Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “And they don’t want to be drawn into difficult subjects.”

This time it’s not a giant balloon traversing the continental U.S. that has presented the White House with a challenge but a possible project to build a Chinese eavesdropping site in Cuba about 100 miles off Florida’s coast

China has held discussions with Havana about setting up an electronic surveillance facility in Cuba, a U.S. official and a congressional aide with knowledge of the matter told NBC News. It was unclear whether China and Cuba had a formal agreement in place for the base.

The Wall Street Journal first reported plans for the site, saying the two countries had forged an agreement in principle to proceed. Other U.S. media outlets have also reported on China’s possible foray into the Western hemisphere, a potentially audacious move that would allow Beijing to potentially scoop up electronic signals in the southeastern U.S.

But White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the Wall Street Journal report was “inaccurate.” Kirby and other officials did not specify what exactly was incorrect about the account, saying it was not possible to discuss sensitive intelligence reporting.

“We have had real concerns about China’s relationship with Cuba, and we have been concerned since day one of the administration about China’s activities in our hemisphere and around the world,” Kirby told NBC News in a statement. “We are closely monitoring it and taking steps to counter it.”

Congressional aides say the administration appears to be trying to avoid confirming the reports on the possible Cuba post, with Blinken’s trip in the balance and details of Beijing’s plans in Cuba still uncertain.

China’s embassy in Washington said it was “unaware” of any such project in Cuba. A spokesperson for the foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, said that “spreading rumors and slander is a common tactic of the United States,’’ and accused Washington of hypocrisy given its global surveillance operations.

“The United States is also the most powerful hacker empire in the world, and also veritably a major monitoring nation,” Wang said.

Cuba dismissed the report of a planned Chinese listening post as “mendacious and baseless” and that Havana has committed since 2014 to opposing any foreign military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm over China’s possible post in Cuba and called on the Biden administration to take action to prevent it.

“We are deeply disturbed by reports that Havana and Beijing are working together to target the United States and our people,” said the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, and the Republican vice chair, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, in a joint statement.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 8: (L-R) Committee chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) talks with ranking member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning worldwide threats, on Capitol Hill March 8, 2023 in Washington, DC. The leaders of the intelligence agencies testified on a wide range of issues, including China, Covid-19 origins, and TikTok.
Getty Images file

“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, in an area also populated with key military installations and extensive maritime traffic,” Warner and Rubio said.

The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, said in a tweet he was “deeply troubled” by the reports and added, “If true, this would be yet another act of Chinese aggression.” 


Setting up a listening post in Cub fits into China’s broader global strategy to secure ports and hubs at key naval chokepoints around the world, providing it with a platform “to conduct real-time intelligence collection against the U.S. military and U.S. facilities in the region,” said Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Chinese denials regarding the base “should not be taken at face value,” according to Singleton. China initially described an outpost it constructed in Djibouti as a minor logistics site, but it is now a sprawling base that can house thousands of Chinese marines that includes vast hardened underground facilities, he said.

As the administration has made final preparations for Blinken’s trip in recent weeks, the Chinese and U.S. militaries have had two close calls in the western Pacific. The Pentagon says a Chinese fighter jet flew dangerously close to a U.S. military surveillance plane over the South China Sea on May 30. Days later, a Chinese naval ship came within 150 yards of an American destroyer in the Taiwan Strait, cutting across its bow. China rejected the Pentagon’s description and blamed the U.S. for both incidents.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the incidents, Blinken said the near collisions only underscored the importance of the U.S. and China maintaining open lines of communication.

“The most dangerous thing is not to communicate and as a result, to have a misunderstanding and miscommunication,” Blinken said. “As we’ve said repeatedly, while we have a real competition with China, we also make sure that doesn’t veer into conflict.”

U.S. allies in Asia and Europe, worried about growing distrust between the two superpowers, see Blinken’s planned visit as crucial to preventing a trade war and avoiding an unintended crisis.

“All of our allies are uneasy about the fact that the U.S.-China relationship continues to deteriorate,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund think tank’s Indo-Pacific program. “They all want to see more stable relations between the United States and China.”

In March, South Korean Rep. Lee Jae-jung, who sits on the foreign affairs committee of the country’s National Assembly, said that the “current state of Chinese-U.S. relations is a powder keg that I fear could explode anytime.”

But critics and some China hawks have questioned the administration’s approach, accusing the White House of pulling its punches and being too eager to maintain the prospect of possible high-level meetings with Chinese counterparts. 

“Xi will permit only limited bilateral dialogue in niche areas of vital significance to Beijing while rejecting meaningful engagement on most anything of import to Washington,” Singleton said.

After angry exchanges between Washington and Beijing during and after the Chinese balloon flight in February, the Biden administration has stopped speaking about the airship publicly, unless asked. The administration has also not released the results of an FBI-led examination of the debris from the balloon, which was shot down on Feb. 4.

Chinese officials want to move on from the incident and privately express concern about the issue coming up again if the results of the FBI investigation are released. At the G7 summit in Japan in May, President Joe Biden dismissed the airship as a “silly balloon.”

Source: NBC News

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