The report in the Wall Street Journal about China having operated a spy base in Cuba since 2019 to watch the US, comes at a time when the Biden administration has been attempting to mend ties with China. While the geo-political tensions underlying the latest revelation is understandable, the fact of the matter is that this indicates a growing Chinese capacity and capability to use all its intelligence assets globally to meet its national interests. Reports suggest that the Cuban spy base was uncovered by a review of Chinese intelligence facilities across the globe by the US intelligence community ordered by the Biden administration some years ago. Of greater salience is the report that China and Cuba have agreed, in principle, to establish a Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) station in Cuba. US intelligence, has in recent years, stepped up efforts to counter the Chinese push to expand its spying operations.
The US intelligence community had determined that Chinese spying from Cuba has been an “ongoing” matter and is “not a new development.” US President Joe Biden’s national security team was briefed by the intelligence community soon after he took office in January 2021, about a number of Chinese efforts to expand logistics, basing and intelligence collection infrastructure as part of the People’s Liberation Army’s attempt to further its influence globally. PLA officials have looked at sites that spanned the Atlantic Ocean, Latin America, Middle East, Central Asia, Africa and the Indo- Pacific. This effort reportedly included looking at existing collection facilities in Cuba. China conducted an upgrade of its spying operation on the island in 2019.
Fox News quotes from a 2011 unclassified report by the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute which had then warned that China had “at least three Soviet- era monitoring facilities in Cuba: Lourdes, Bejucal, and Santiago de Cuba.” These surveillance bases were intended to “facilitate” the PRC’s operations against the US in the event of significant downturn in the US-China relations. Stealing US secrets is the primary mission of the spy bases in Bejucal and Santiago, which are staffed by Chinese military SIGINT personnel. Located just 90 miles from Florida, the Bejucal SIGINT post enables Chinese intelligence to scoop up electronic communications throughout the south-eastern US, where many military bases are located, and monitor
U.S. ship traffic. Just 325 miles from the US military’s Central Command headquarters at Tampa, it is an ideal location to intercept signals, track ballistic missiles and even monitor US space launches. The listening post in Cuba could help China watch development of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network, a communications tool that Ukrainian forces have extensively used in their conflict with Russia.
Sino-Indian rivalry in South Asia also witnesses intense espionage by China on India using all available means. The visit of Yuan Wang 5 ship to Sri Lanka last year set off a flutter in India, as this vessel was known to be capable of collecting intelligence of several kinds. The Chinese also have an impressive array of espionage technologies by which they target and penetrate India. On the other side of the globe, China is preparing to enter into an agreement with Sri Lanka to set up a satellite ground receiving station in the south of the island nation. This facility will be set up at Dondra Bay and could provide the means to monitor the activities of the Indian Navy, apart from attempting to evaluate India’s strategic assets in South India. The Chinese
already have a listening post that monitors Indian missile tests off the coast of Orissa, on the Coco Islands in Myanmar. This could well be the new string of pearls that China is building across the Indian Ocean, as it did with Ports earlier and is a cause for concern. China has reportedly sought the lease of Dondra Bay for 99 years, just as they have done in the case of Hambantota Port. The Economic Times reports that Aerospace Information Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is the likely agency steering the project at Dondra Bay, about 155 km south-east of Colombo. There are also reports of the Chinese Academy of Sciences having signed a MoU with the University of Ruhuna for this purpose.
Pertinently, China has the most extensive SIGINT capability in the Indo-Pacific region. With increasing tensions in the South China Sea, China’s significant military presence is supported by unprecedented levels of SIGINT activity. For instance, China has a SIGINT facility on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands that gives China an unprecedented reconnaissance overview of the South China Sea region. Globally, China operates several dozen SIGINT ground stations in-country, “and elsewhere,” to monitor signals from Russia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, and Southeast Asia, as well as signals from US military units operating in the region. China has also constructed satellite ground stations in Argentina and Chile. The IISS notes that China operates 207 satellites, including 86 for SIGINT and early warning operations. The US Department of Defense 2022 report on China’s military states that the tracking ships are operated by the PLA’s expanding Strategic Support Force (SSF) and can follow ballistic missile launches and satellites. The SSF also operates tracking and command stations in Namibia, Pakistan, Kenya, and Argentina.
One must contextualise the reports of a secret Chinese listening post in Cuba in terms of the tensions between the US and China evident throughout Biden’s term in office. The relationship hit a nadir last year after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. That visit, the first by a sitting House speaker since Newt Gingrich in 1997, led China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, to launch military exercises around Taiwan. US-China relations became further strained early this year after the US shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had crossed the United States. China was also angered by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s stopover in the US last month that included an “encounter” with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy who hosted the Taiwanese leader at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in southern California.
US-China tensions have an intelligence dimension and that is why reports of China using a secret base in Cuba to keep a watch on the United States should not come as a surprise. The US intelligence community’s review of Chinese espionage activities worldwide has raised a question about Cuba. Reports suggesting that this spying has been going on since 2019 indicates the possibility of a Russian-China concert in Cuba. Pertinently, the larger strategic threat of Chinese intelligence globally is something to be taken note of, as countries like the US and India have often been at the receiving end. With the Indian Prime Minister due to visit the US shortly on a State Visit, this aspect of the bilateral relationship could also be discussed. Perhaps it is time for India to become a member of the Five Eyes network!