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China’s Growing Clout on U.S. Doorstep

China’s Growing Clout on U.S. Doorstep


The worldwide nature of U.S.-China rivalry has been thrust back into the spotlight after Biden administration officials said a Chinese electronic eavesdropping station was being run out of Cuba since at least 2019—an allegation denied by Havana and Beijing.

Whatever the case in Cuba, China’s presence in other Caribbean states dotted on the threshold of the United States has been growing rapidly, just as Beijing has expanded its reach around the world, using overt and covert diplomacy, trade, aid and investment under its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

“China’s activities in Latin America and the Caribbean fit into the Communist Party’s overarching, global economic and military framework. Communist Party leaders have made two important things clear in their overall strategy—China must be prepared to fight and win wars, and they will expand their military to safeguard the ceaseless expansion of their overseas interests,” said Jonathan Ward, author of The Decisive Decade: American Grand Strategy for Triumph Over China.

“Beijing has demonstrated that the Belt and Road Initiative is both an economic and a military project. China’s trade with Latin American nations has burgeoned over the past two decades, and the Caribbean is an area where relatively small amounts of capital can purchase significant influence,” Ward told Newsweek.

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Countries from the Bahamas to Barbados and Jamaica to Trinidad and Tobago have all been among the major beneficiaries of Chinese loans and investment that total tens of billions of dollars.

The U.S. government said it was monitoring Chinese investments in dual-use infrastructure in the Western Hemisphere and would continue to mitigate security risks. China has been making steady inroads into the region as it seeks to rebalance the post war global status quo, under which America has enjoyed a permanent presence deep in the Western Pacific—including on China’s own doorstep—for decades.

Reports of the alleged Cuba spy station came at an inopportune time for the White House, which was seeking to resume high-level dialogue with China’s leaders. Antony Blinken‘s scheduled trip to Beijing will make him the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country in nearly five years, after travel plans in early February were scuppered by another incident: a suspected Chinese spy balloon’s flight over U.S. airspace.

At a press conference on Monday, Blinken said the Cuba facility was among “a number of sensitive efforts by Beijing around the world to expand their overseas logistics, basing, [and] collection infrastructure, to allow them to project and sustain military power at the greater distance.” He said the Biden administration had “slowed down” China’s search for access through diplomatic efforts with would-be host governments.

Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernández de Cossío of Cuba speaks during a press conference at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Havana on June 8, 2023. Cuba on Thursday rejected as “mendacious and unfounded” information published in the U.S. press about an alleged agreement between Beijing and Havana to install a Chinese listening post on the island.
YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Cuba’s senior diplomats, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, called the U.S. assertion “totally false,” made to justify its long-running trade embargo against the island.

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China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the U.S. was seeking to “drive a wedge between two true friends, China and Cuba.” Beijing has repeatedly called on Washington to lift its sanctions on Havana.

Natural Partners

Cuba, America’s old Cold War foe, hosted a Soviet spy base at Lourdes, near Havana, in the 1960s. President Vladimir Putin of Russia shut it down in 2001 after leasing the facility for hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Caribbean island is 90 miles from Florida, where the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Central Command are located. Fort Liberty, the largest U.S. military base—previously known as Fort Bragg—is further north in North Carolina.

A fixed installation to intercept communications would be more effective and less susceptible to interference than those operated from moving assets, said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank and director of its strategic technologies program.

“The ground station collects radio traffic from the U.S., which includes mobile phones, and then can package it and send it back to China via satellite uplink,” Lewis told Newsweek. “That’s what the Russians did, so I assume the Chinese are doing something similar.”

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China’s choice of Cuba for a clandestine listening post would be unsurprising. Chinese Communist Party leaders in Beijing and their opposite numbers in Havana have long described their relationship as simpatico.

Last November, President Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba became the first head of state from Latin America and the Caribbean to call on Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing after the latter had extended his rule over China’s Communist Party for a norm-breaking third 5-year term. Xi hailed the long relationship. In a later interview with Chinese state media, Díaz-Canel described the Cuba-China relationship as “intergeneration and indestructible.”

The reports said China had reached a multi-billion dollar deal over the spy station. That could be hugely important for Cuba, whose GDP was recorded at $107 billion in 2020, according to the World Bank.

China's Growing Clout In The Caribbean
President Xi Jinping of China waits to greet First Vice President of the Council of State of Cuba Miguel Díaz-Canel at the Great Hall of the People on June 18, 2013.
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Such a step into what Gen. Laura Richardson, head of U.S. Southern Command, recently called America’s “20-yard line” may be, from the perspective of Beijing and others, part of the natural progression of a rising great power.

Beijing’s deepening engagement with Havana beyond the political and economic realms is not new, a U.S. official told Newsweek. “We find the PRC’s longstanding activities with Cuba concerning. The PRC will continue to enhance its presence in Cuba, and we will keep working to disrupt it,” the official said.

A Wide Net

To be sure, U.S. concerns about China don’t stop in the Caribbean. Successive U.S. administrations have been alarmed by China’s concerted efforts to project its power—political, economic and military—beyond Asia by acquiring stakes in critical physical and digital infrastructure.

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For example in the South Pacific, where America was long viewed as the partner of choice, China has received positive responses to its overtures amid a global search for basing and access for the People’s Liberation Army. The U.S. and its regional allies were caught unawares when the Chinese government announced a security agreement with the Solomon Islands just over a year ago.

Separately, Newsweek identified nearly 100 ports where Chinese state-owned companies such as transportation conglomerate COSCO Shipping held partial or majority control, including five in the U.S., five in Central America, three in South America, and two in the Caribbean.

Roughly a third of these ports around the world have hosted PLA Navy warships over the years, underscoring the long-term potential for Beijing’s commercial investments to facilitate the Communist Party’s far-reaching ambitions and its joining together of economic and national security.

In the last decade, China’s extraregional influence has expanded massively under the Belt and Road Initiative—Xi’s signature foreign policy. Although it has been shunned by the U.S. and many European governments, the broad framework has gained favor in the developing world, where China’s state-owned firms have won contracts to build highways, railroads, bridges, harbors, airports as well as internet and electrical infrastructure.

The U.S. argues China’s access deals lack transparency. Also raised have been questions of how sustainable debts are and what happens if countries default.

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“The U.S. wants to ensure that nations can make choices about their economic and security future that serve their best interests, and we are committed to supporting them in doing so,” Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson, told Newsweek.

China's Growing Clout In The Caribbean
President Raul Castro of Cuban and his President Xi Jinping of China look out a window during a visit to the place where former leader Fidel Castro proclaimed triumph in the revolution in Santiago de Cuba, on July 23, 2014.
BIN LIU/AFP via Getty Images

Arriving in the Caribbean

As of January 2023, the number of BRI countries stood at more than 150.

Among the Caribbean‘s 13 island nations, seven are participants of the BRI and one has signed grant agreements for infrastructure work involving Chinese construction firms.

Jamaica, which formally joined the BRI in 2019, has received the most concession loans from China’s development finance institutions, at $2.1 billion since 2005. The latest, $326 million in February 2017, was for a coastal highway renovation project.

Trinidad and Tobago, a BRI member since 2018, is the next highest recipient of loans at $695 million since 2011, including $104 million in November 2019 for an industrial estate and $204 million in June 2021 for goods including Chinese vaccines.

The Dominican Republic signed on to the BRI in 2018 and borrowed $600 million in August 2019 for an electricity distribution project.

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Cuba has borrowed $369 million from China’s state-backed lenders since 2015, including $29 million in January 2017 for a floating dock in capital Havana. The Cuban government signed the BRI agreement in 2018.

Barbados, a BRI participant since 2019, has received loans worth $291 million since 2015. Its latest, $121 million in February 2022, went toward a road rehabilitation project.

Antigua and Barbuda has received $176 million in Chinese loans since 2008. It borrowed $97 million in January 2016 to expand the port of capital St. John’s. The country joined the BRI in 2018, and the harbor redevelopment concluded last year under the initiative’s name.

The Bahamas borrowed $99 million from China’s policy banks in 2011 and 2012, but the country isn’t a BRI participant. In July 2019 and again two years later, the Chinese government offered the Bahamas separate $12 million grants for infrastructure projects, issued under the framework of “South-South cooperation.”

China's Growing Clout In The Caribbean
Chinese honor guards prepare for the arrival of President Xiomara Castro of Honduras and President Xi Jinping of China during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 12, 2023.
WANG ZHAO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Grenada, a BRI member since 2018, received one concession loan of $66 million in September 2017 to upgrade Maurice Bishop International Airport, which serves the capital St. George’s.

Dominica, which didn’t join the BRI until 2018, borrowed $40 million in 2009 for building construction and road rehabilitation, according to the China-Latin America finance database maintained by Inter-American Dialogue think tank and Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center.

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“A decade ago, China’s commercial interests, diplomatic presence and soft power across Latin America and the Caribbean were rather minimal compared to where they are today. What we’ve seen is a significant increase in China’s presence in the Western Hemisphere,” said Jason Marczak, senior director of the Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Across the region, the U.S. is also watching China’s increased interest in the space sector and in digital infrastructure such as 5G and smart cities. U.S. and Western companies would be apprehensive to build their networks on top of Chinese platforms in critical technology infrastructure, Marczak told Newsweek.

Marczak said: “We’ve seen how that technology can be used for nefarious purposes, so there’s a risk not only for the companies, but also for the countries themselves, because by using Chinese technology, you’re limiting the number of companies that will invest in any sectors in your country that depend upon that technology.”

A Changing Landscape

The borrowing figures don’t include the myriad bids won by Chinese engineering companies that have invested in hospitals and stadiums across the Americas, where leaders have lauded contributions by their top trading partner.

“Jamaica, and indeed many other countries of the Global South, have benefitted from the generosity and commitment of the Chinese government in promoting the growth and advancement of the developing world,” Jamaica’s foreign minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, said in a letter last October to mark China’s national day.

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In January 2022, Jamaican diplomats officially opened a new Foreign Ministry headquarters in downtown Kingston, partially funded by China and built by a Chinese firm.

In an August 2021 interview, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados rejected suggests that Caribbean countries that sought deeper engagement with China were swapping one superpower’s influence for another. The region had an “equal capacity to determine our destiny,” she said.

“China will never force Latin America to ‘take sides’ between China and the U.S., nor does it want the current Sino-U.S. disputes to affect China-Latin America relations,” Zhao Bentang, a senior Chinese diplomat in charge of Latin American and Caribbean affairs, now Beijing’s envoy to Portugal, told China’s state-owned Global Times tabloid in 2019.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda, among the strongest backers of growing ties with the world’s second-largest economy, objected strongly to U.S. caution about the BRI in 2018, saying China had filled a void left by the “neglect of the powerful states.”

Last December, Beijing opened a marquee new embassy in St. John’s on a 5 acre plot bought from the Antiguan and Barbudan government for a symbolic 1 East Caribbean dollar. At the groundbreaking ceremony two years earlier, Browne had said China’s contributions to his country in the past 20 years were unmatched by any other.

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Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, said a deal to join China’s BRI, was largely a declaration of interest in joining China’s economic project that held out the possibility of privileged access to loans and investment.

“Political and business elites with an interest in the commercial, and sometimes personal, benefit from Chinese projects and have been quick to dismiss U.S. security and other concerns as ‘great power competition,’ a convenient, often sincere rationale for taking Chinese money,” Ellis told Newsweek.

“The relatively recent history of colonialism and Cold War struggle in the Caribbean has facilitated the acceptance of this discourse, just as it has facilitated the PRC advance in Africa,” he said. “While few in the Caribbean have seen the PRC advance as a security challenge, the way PRC companies have executed the projects, and the relationships between Caribbean governments and those investors, has repeatedly become political issues within those nations.”

“The number of defense and police force officials across the Caribbean who have gone to the PRC for training and institutional visits, and the number of ‘Chinese gifts’—police cars, motorcycles and other equipment—has been greater than in other parts of the hemisphere on a per capita basis, buying goodwill to the point that many Caribbean nations are equally happy to work with the Chinese vis-à-vis the U.S. on security issues,” said Ellis.

Despite largely welcoming Chinese investments, America’s southern neighbors are unlikely to open the door to military cooperation to the degree that Cuba has, according to Marczak of the Atlantic Council.

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“Cuba is a special case. In the Western Hemisphere, there are three countries that have a particularly acrimonious relationship with the United States: Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In general, across the region, there’s an inherent interest in not risking their relationship with the United States, given the investment, commercial and people-to-people ties,” he said.

Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about China? Let us know via worldnews@newsweek.com.

Published: 2023-06-16 10:00:01

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