China has been operating military and intelligence facilities in Cuba since at least 2019 and is continuing to expand its intelligence gathering capabilities around the world, a Biden administration official and two other sources told CNN Saturday.
The administration official said China “conducted an upgrade of its intelligence collection facilities in Cuba in 2019” under the Trump administration and described the challenge as “inherited.”
“This is well-documented in the intelligence record,” the official said.
The sources acknowledged that China has been spying on the US from various sites based in Cuba for years after the White House denied reports earlier this week that China was planning to build a new signals intelligence facility on the island.
Earlier this week, CNN confirmed a report by the Wall Street Journal that Cuba agreed to allow China to build a new spying facility on the island that could allow the Chinese to eavesdrop on electronic communications across the southeastern US.
That deal is in principle, one of the sources familiar with the intelligence said, and the facility is not believed to have been built.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, called the Journal’s report “not accurate” and on Saturday the administration official further explained “this is an ongoing issue, and not a new development, and the arrangement as characterized in the reporting does not comport with our understanding.”
One of the sources described the discrepancy as “semantic quibbling.”
But the revelations about expanding Chinese intelligence operations in Cuba comes as US-China relations have reached a low point, following the spy balloon incident in February and several aggressive maneuvers by Chinese aircraft and ships against US assets in the South China Sea more recently.
The US has been trying to mend the relationship, and dispatched CIA Director Bill Burns to Beijing last month for talks with Chinese officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also expected to visit China in the coming weeks.
But last week, China’s defense chief refused a meeting request by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and warned the US to stop operating near Chinese waters and airspace.
Former US Ambassador to China Max Baucus said Saturday he was “surprised” the Biden administration initially denied reporting that China has operated intelligence and military facilities in Cuba and acknowledged China has long had a “presence” in Cuba.
Baucus, who served as the top US diplomat in China for nearly three years during the Obama administration, described the Chinese intelligence capabilities during an interview on CNN as “not quite as strong as some fear,” but added, “I think China would like to make it much stronger.”
The source familiar with the intelligence told CNN that the various military and intelligence sites that China maintains 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 autocratic countries from which it can advance its national security interests.
The Chinese military and intelligence sites monitor maritime traffic, the US Guantanamo naval base and communications, the source familiar with the intelligence said. With so many communications moving from physical lines and cables to wireless, the People’s Republic of China will move to try to monitor those as well, the source added.
“It was our assessment that, despite awareness of the basing efforts and some attempts to address this challenge in the past Administration, we were not making enough progress and needed a more direct approach,” the Biden administration official said on Saturday.
“The President directed his team to come up with an approach to address this challenge,” the official added. “Our experts assess that our diplomatic efforts have slowed the PRC down. We think the PRC isn’t quite where they had hoped to be. There are still challenges, and we continue to be concerned about the PRC’s longstanding activities with Cuba. The PRC will keep trying to enhance its presence in Cuba, and we will keep working to disrupt it.”