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Prospect of Chinese spy base in Cuba unsettles Washington

Military close calls between U.S. and China
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Washington — Cuba may allow China to establish a facility on its territory capable of conducting electronic surveillance on the United States, CBS News has confirmed, a plan that would add notable strain to already tense relations between Washington and Beijing. 

While China and the U.S. routinely surveil each other — and others — using satellites, overhead flights and other means, a Chinese outpost positioned roughly 100 miles from the Florida coast would undoubtedly inflame sensitivities that were already stoked by the U.S. military shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon that traversed American territory in February.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier Thursday that Havana and Beijing had arrived at a secret agreement in which Beijing would pay "several billion dollars" for permission to build the facility. Sources who spoke with CBS News said intelligence indicated the arrangement had been discussed in principle, but they were not aware of a final deal being reached.   

The Cuban government strongly denied any agreement to house a spy base had been reached with China. Carlos Fernández de Cossio, a vice minister of foreign affairs, issued a statement calling the Wall Street Journal story "totally false and unfounded." He accused U.S. officials of fabricating the allegation to justify the continued blockade of the island.

China's Foreign Ministry also dismissed the report and claimed American hypocrisy, with spokesperson Wang Wenbin calling the U.S. "the most powerful hacker empire in the world" on Friday and telling reporters that "spreading rumours and slander" was a "common tactic of the United States."

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said reports of an agreement between the two countries were "not accurate." A senior administration official added that the Biden administration has had "real concerns" about China's relationship with Cuba, and had been "concerned since day one of the Administration" about China's activities worldwide.

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"We are closely monitoring it and taking steps to counter it. We remain confident that we are able to meet all our security commitments at home and in the region," the official said.

U.S. lawmakers on Thursday called on the administration to intervene.

"We are deeply disturbed by reports that Havana and Beijing are working together to target the United States and our people. The United States must respond to China's ongoing and brazen attacks on our nation's security," Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a joint statement. "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."  

"We urge the Biden administration to take steps to prevent this serious threat to our national security and sovereignty," their statement said. 

U.S. officials have long warned that China would seek to expand its influence abroad, including by offering material incentives to developing or impoverished countries.

This year's annual threat assessment prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the Chinese military "will continue to pursue the establishment of overseas military installations and access agreements in an attempt to project power and protect China's interests abroad."

"While the [People's Liberation Army] is making uneven progress toward establishing overseas military facilities, the PLA probably will continue to use tailored approaches to address local concerns as it seeks to improve relations with amenable countries and advance its overseas basing goals," the assessment said.

It noted China has reportedly been pursuing deals to build military bases in Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates. Beijing's only existing overseas military base is in Djibouti.

The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

The public revelation of the potential plan comes at a highly sensitive moment in U.S.-China relations. Weeks ago, at the G-7 summit in Japan, President Biden predicted a "thaw" in what had been frosty relations since the surveillance balloon incident. It later came to light that a series of high-level meetings had taken place between senior U.S. and Chinese officials, including an in-person visit to Beijing in May by CIA Director William Burns.

Two other U.S. officials — Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and Sarah Beran, senior director for China and Taiwan at the National Security Council — held meetings in Beijing this week, the latest in a series of engagements that were building up to a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

But tensions spiked again last week after a a Chinese warship carried out what the U.S. called an "unsafe" maneuver in the Taiwan Strait, cutting sharply across the path of an American destroyer. The U.S. also accused a Chinese fighter jet of performing an "unnecessarily aggressive maneuver" by flying directly in front of an American spy plane over the South China Sea in late May.

Still, plans for Blinken to travel to Beijing this month have been underway. His previously planned trip, which was to include a meeting with President Xi Jinping, was canceled in February following the spy balloon incident.  

"We cannot speak to this specific report," a State Department spokesperson said of the plan for China to establish a presence in Cuba, adding, "we are well aware of — and have spoken many times to — the People's Republic of China's efforts to invest in infrastructure around the world that may have military purposes, including in this hemisphere." 

The CIA declined to comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Margaret Brennan contributed reporting.

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