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We shouldn't be shocked that China wants to spy on us

Stocks of brown paper bags are running low in Washington amid the latest hysteria about a purported Chinese listening post in Cuba.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

China hawks in the U.S. are in a lather over disputed reports that China and Cuba have reached an agreement to permit a Chinese listening post on the island.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the story last week, and CNN followed up with its own report. The stories claim that the two governments have reached an agreement in principle for Cuba to allow the Chinese to spy from its territory in exchange for billions of dollars. The White House initially said that the reports are inaccurate.

It may be that some anonymous officials are exaggerating Chinese cooperation with Cuba to suit their own agenda, or this may simply be another case of U.S. hyperventilating over Chinese overseas facilities that do not exist. Further complicating the debate, an administration official claims that China has had a spying facility in the country since 2019.

U.S. officials have made a habit in recent years of warning about possible Chinese bases from the Solomon Islands to Cambodia to Equatorial Guinea, and in all these cases the governments involved have denied that they are considering granting China bases on their territory. More to the point, there is no evidence that any new Chinese bases are being planned or constructed in these countries. The Cuban government has likewise denied that it has made the agreement with China for a listening post. Maybe this time it isn’t a false alarm, but there are many reasons to doubt these reports.

The assumption that China must be pursuing an extensive overseas base network is taken for granted and some U.S. officials then try to fit available evidence around the conclusion they already reached. Then these officials feed their speculations to credulous outlets hungry for the inside scoop on the burgeoning U.S.-China rivalry, and almost no one bothers to confirm whether any of it is even happening. Instead of treating claims from anonymous officials with intense skepticism, some outlets choose to run with the story because it is too good to check.

That is what happened with the supposed Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea. The Wall Street Journal published a report in late 2021 that breathlessly warned about a Chinese naval base that would allow their ships to “rearm and refit opposite the East Coast of the U.S.,” and almost two years later nothing more has come of it. When China and the Solomon Islands struck a security agreement in 2022, there was widespread, unfounded speculation that this meant that China might acquire a base there despite vehement denials from Honiara. Assuming the worst about Chinese “expansionism,” some government officials and media outlets have let their imaginations run wild.

It is certainly possible that China and Cuba might make a deal like the one described in the news reports, but so far, we have only the word of a few anonymous officials that they have made it. Given the strong incentives in the current environment to hype threats from China, we should take every report like this with a grain of salt. Each time one of these reports about a possible Chinese overseas facility comes out, it seems as if China hawks are desperate to believe them no matter how thin the sourcing or how weak the evidence may be. In light of the White House’s rejection of the Cuba story, that should make us even more skeptical about its veracity.

If the Chinese were setting up a listening post in Cuba, that would be concerning, but it can hardly be surprising when the U.S. engages in the same sort of intelligence gathering against China. The hawkish reaction to these reports is reminiscent of the hypocritical panic over the surveillance balloon earlier this year. The same people who support some of the most aggressive policies against China and other countries feign shock and outrage that foreign governments might be trying to spy on our country just as our government spies on theirs. They should know that this is an unavoidable part of the rivalry that they want the U.S. to pursue.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) might win the prize for the most overwrought response to the reporting. In a statement, he said, “The United States must respond to China’s ongoing and brazen attacks on our nation’s security. 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.”

If this is unacceptable conduct on China’s part, what does Rubio think the U.S. military is doing off the coast of China year after year? The U.S. routinely spies on China just outside its airspace with surveillance planes, and then complains when Chinese planes get too close to them. It is more than a little absurd to condemn another government for allegedly doing something that the U.S. has been doing openly for decades.

Some China hawks explain away the White House’s denials as being motivated by a desire to improve the relationship with Beijing. The Wall Street Journal editors wrote that “the report is inconvenient for an Administration that is desperately seeking a thaw in U.S.-China relations.”

As we have seen in recent weeks, the administration isn’t really all that desperate to thaw relations, but the Journal’s argument could easily be turned around in any case. The report is exceedingly convenient for the China hawks that would like to derail any efforts at stabilizing the relationship. Now that Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s canceled trip to Beijing appears to be back on the schedule, perhaps there are some officials in the government that want to create headaches for the administration by putting out bad information designed to hamper diplomacy.

If the report does turn out to be correct, it would just drive home how a policy of containment and rivalry can backfire and invite new potential threats into our own part of the world. Courting great power rivalry and conflict with China is a risky proposition, and it isn’t necessary for the U.S. and its allies to be secure.

The Biden administration erred in February when it called off Blinken’s visit to China because of the surveillance balloon. That was an overreaction that has made it much more difficult to stabilize the relationship with China ever since. The administration is right to try to make up for that earlier mistake, however halting its efforts may have been.

Diplomatic engagement is not a luxury that the U.S. enjoys only with allies and friendly states. The U.S. needs to engage with other major powers, especially when there are major disagreements that can lead to worsening relations. Relationships with rivals in particular need constant tending so that they do not deteriorate and spin out of control. The Biden administration would do well to ignore the screeching of China hawks over this issue and make sure that Blinken finally goes to Beijing.

Image: Artmim via shutterstock.com
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