China has reached a secret deal with Cuba to establish an electronic eavesdropping facility on the island roughly 100 miles (160km) from Florida, the Wall Street Journal has reported, but the US and Cuban governments cast strong doubt on the report.
Such a spy installation would allow Beijing to gather electronic communications from the south-eastern United States, which houses many US military bases, as well as to monitor ship traffic, the newspaper reported.
The US Central Command headquarters is based in Tampa. Fort Liberty, formerly Fort Bragg, the largest US military base, is based in North Carolina.
The countries have reached an agreement in principle, the officials said, with China to pay Cuba “several billion dollars” to allow the eavesdropping station, according to the Journal.
“We have seen the report. It’s not accurate,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House national security council, told Reuters. But he did not specify what he thought was incorrect.
He said the United States has had “real concerns” about China’s relationship with Cuba and was closely monitoring it.
Brig Gen Patrick Ryder, a US defense department spokesperson, said: “We are not aware of China and Cuba developing a new type of spy station.”
In Havana, the Cuban vice-foreign minister, Carlos Fernández de Cossio, dismissed the report as “totally mendacious and unfounded”, calling it a US. fabrication meant to justify Washington’s decades-old economic embargo against the island. He said Cuba rejects all foreign military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington said: “We are not aware of the case and as a result we can’t give a comment right now.” The Cuban embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
The reported deal comes as Washington and Beijing are taking tentative steps to soothe tensions that spiked after a suspected Chinese high-altitude spy balloon crossed the United States before the US military shot it down off the east coast in February.
It could also raise questions about a trip to China that US officials say the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is planning in coming weeks. Washington’s top diplomat had earlier scrapped a visit over the spy balloon incident.
The Biden administration has pushed to boost engagement with China even as ties have deteriorated over disputes ranging from military activity in the South China Sea and near Taiwan, Beijing’s human rights record and technology competition.
Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee and a Cuba hawk, said that if the report were true, it would be “a direct assault upon the United States”.
“So I hope the administration will think about how they’ll react, if it’s true,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.
A former US intelligence official with knowledge of signals intelligence collection told Reuters that a Chinese listening post in Cuba would be a “big deal”.
However, the US has a long history of spying on China in its neighborhood. It is widely reported to have used Taiwan as a listening post for the mainland and regularly flies spy planes in the South China Sea.
The head of Taiwan’s national security bureau told the island’s parliament in April that Taiwan was conducting real-time encrypted intelligence sharing with Five Eyes partners, which includes the US.
An infusion of cash would probably be welcomed in Cuba, where the economy is sputtering with inflation, fuel shortages, plunging farm production and a cash crunch that drag on output and continue to fan discontent in the communist-run island nation.
Relations between Washington and Havana remain tense. The Biden administration last year partially rolled back some Trump-era restrictions on remittances and travel to the island, but Cuban officials called the steps insufficient.
The intelligence on the plans for a Cuba station was gathered in recent weeks and was convincing, the Journal reported. The officials said it would allow China to conduct signals intelligence, including emails, phone calls and satellite transmission.
Cuba, an old cold war foe of the United States, has long been a hotbed of espionage and spy games.
The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 began after Moscow began placing Soviet nuclear weapons on the island. It backed down and removed the missiles, but it is widely regarded as the moment when the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to a nuclear confrontation.
The Soviets installed a spy base on the island at Lourdes, just south of Havana, in the mid-1960s, with parabolic antennas aimed at Cuba’s northern neighbor. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, closed the facility in the early 2000s.