China has been operating an intelligence unit in Cuba for years and upgraded it in 2019 as part of a global effort by Beijing to boost its intelligence-gathering capabilities, according to a senior US White House official.
The statement on Saturday came days after The Wall Street Journal reported that China had reached a secret deal with Cuba to establish an electronic eavesdropping facility on the island roughly 160km (100 miles) from the state of Florida in southern United States.
The WSJ reported that China planned to pay a cash-strapped Cuba billions of dollars as part of the negotiations.
The US and Cuban governments have cast strong doubt on the report.
The White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the WSJ’s characterisation “does not comport with our understanding”, but did not specify how the report was wrong nor address in detail whether there were efforts by China to build a new eavesdropping facility in Cuba.
The official said the issue predated US President Joe Biden’s administration as had Beijing’s efforts to strengthen its intelligence collection infrastructure worldwide.
“This is an ongoing issue and not a new development,” the official said. “The PRC [People’s Republic of China] conducted an upgrade of its intelligence collection facilities in Cuba in 2019. This is well-documented in the intelligence record.”
Asked for comment, an official at China’s embassy in Washington, DC pointed to Friday’s statement by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson who accused the US of “spreading rumors and slander” with talk of a Cuba spy station and of being “the most powerful hacker empire in the world”.
The Cuban government, meanwhile, slammed the latest development.
“Slanderous speculation continues, evidently promoted by certain media outlets to cause damage and alarm, without following minimal communication patterns, and without providing data or evidence to support what they spread,” Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio said on Twitter.
Cassio has previously described the WSJ’s report 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.
Attention surrounding alleged Chinese spying from Cuba comes as Washington and Beijing take tentative steps to soothe tensions that spiked after a suspected Chinese high-altitude spy balloon crossed the US mainland before the country’s military shot it down off the East Coast in February.
That includes a trip to China that US officials say Secretary of State Antony Blinken is planning for June 18. Washington’s top diplomat had earlier scrapped the visit over the spy balloon incident.
The Biden administration official said that despite the administration of former US President Donald Trump being aware of the Chinese basing efforts in Cuba and making some attempts to address the challenge, “we were not making enough progress and needed a more direct approach”.
The official said US diplomats had engaged governments that were considering hosting Chinese bases and had exchanged information with them.
“Our experts assess that our diplomatic efforts have slowed the PRC down,” the official said.
“We think the PRC isn’t quite where they had hoped to be.”