Why wouldn’t China draw Cuba into the new Cold War?

Reports of Beijing’s planned ‘spy base’ on Washington’s doorstep are unsubstantiated but not unrealistic

Last week an unnamed sources-based story in the Wall Street Journal claimed that China is set to pay Cuba to build a “secret spy base” in the country. The island, adjacent to the United States, has long been a huge geopolitical flashpoint following the Communist Revolution in the country in 1960, which brought it to the highest point of Cold War tensions – the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although there is no tangible evidence as to whether this spy-base story is true, it is clear that as US-China tensions rise, the Caribbean country is yet again becoming a geopolitical football as a means of getting at the US. As a communist state situated right on America’s doorstep, one which Washington is overwhelmingly hostile against and has long sought to subjugate, why wouldn’t China take the opportunity to use Cuba to the US’ annoyance? It would be foolish not to do so.

Still, there is some context to consider. First, the US is currently gripped by extreme paranoia regarding China. Almost all things pertaining to Beijing in recent months have been accused, almost always without evidence, of being a covert means for espionage of some sort. There are no rational limits to what may come under the crosshairs, and the bar for the definition of “spying” is so low it might as well not exist.

Secondly, the US has long baselessly accused China of constructing secret bases in third-party countries, often in a bid to undermine its relationship with those countries. This includes a so-called “naval base” in Cambodia, a base in the Solomon Islands, a base in Equatorial Guinea in West Africa, a base in the United Arab Emirates and so on. This would make it logical for allegations of a Chinese base in Cuba to be a perfect McCarthyist fantasy: one communist state the US is irrationally paranoid about using another communist state it is also obsessed with as a means to undermine Washington. It’s a Marco Rubio wet dream.

But that doesn’t mean China doesn’t have good reasons to do so. For all the paranoia, it is the US that is currently pursuing a full militarization of China’s periphery. It is pushing countries for more military bases and defence agreements, it is flying reconnaissance flights against Beijing almost daily, it is sailing warships through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. The US believes it has a divine right to spy on and confront China, and if the Chinese retaliate, well, they are the bad guys.

Therefore, if you were China, why wouldn’t you take advantage of the existence of Cuba and give the US a taste of its own medicine? Cuba of course overtly welcomes the rise and role of China. Havana is subject to a 60-year-long economic blockade by the US that has tried to impoverish and crush the country, as well as remove its government. Following the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union isolated and weakened Cuba. It is, given the events of the past few decades, nothing short of a miracle that the US did not decide to openly invade the country during its unipolar era, with several other “hostile” regimes during that period meeting such a fate.

Thus, the rise of another long-term communist friend as an economic superpower is a massive benefactor for Cuba, because it finally gives it a new option as a source of trade, investment and, of course, a geopolitical guarantee of protection. Cuba has become a critical partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has involved China modernizing the country’s ports, building telecommunication infrastructure and collaborating on energy. Latin American states as a whole have strengthened their relationships with China precisely because it allows them to escape US hegemony, which has long unilaterally subjected the region to its preferences.

But Cuba especially gives China leverage over the US, given the provocative way Washington is interfering with Taiwan, so the idea of a “spy base” is realistic. Although Beijing’s relationship with Havana will never become a military alliance, and likely never replicate the events of the last Cold War, it is an important strategic partner in responding to and containing the US. Cuba of course is not a threat to the US, but it is a nuisance and a menace ideologically, and what better way is there to respond to the US than by ensuring that its attempts to strangle, contain and stop Cuba from thriving never succeed? Beijing believes Havana should succeed through economic development and, spy base or not, that’s what it will do here.

By Timur Fomenko