THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
by Jaime Suchlicki
In February, a top-level Chinese military delegation, led by Defense Minister Chi Haotian, visited Cuba. It was the first time a Chinese minister of defense had been to the island. But in terms of recent Cuba?China relations, it was not a rare exchange. In fact, after a prolonged period of tension, the two countries have been warming up to each other in an unprecedented fashion.
In 1993, President Jiang Zemin visited Cuba and Fidel Castro reciprocated by visiting China in 1995. Within the past two years, Cuba and China have exchanged high-level military and civilian delegations, including visits by Raul Castro and Cuba’s top generals to China and a trip to Cuba by General Dong Liang Ju, head of the Chinese Military Commission. China has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to the US’s Cuba policy, particularly the embargo, and Cuba condemned last month’s accidental NATO attack on the Chinese embassy as “an act of aggression, a genocidal action” by the US. As the US debates the value of the Cuba embargo and as questions continue to arise in Congress about President Clinton’s dealing with the Chinese, the China-Cuba nexus is of more than passing interest.
The impoverished island obviously can offer little attraction to China in economic terms. The logical conclusion from the military visits and other clues is that China sees a presence in Cuba of some strategic value, just as the Soviet Union did years ago when it first teamed up with Fidel Castro to make Cuba a Soviet military base and intelligence?gathering center. A US administration official, who asked not to be identified, says that “the US is tracking very closely Chinese activities in Cuba. As closely as we can.”
Fidel Castro’s relations with China have a volatile history. When Maoist China and the Soviet Union parted company in the 1960s, Castro chose to stick with the Soviets, who seemed to offer better support and a better payoff for his efforts to spread revolution throughout Latin America. This soured Cuba’s relations with China. At the Summit Conference of the Non?Aligned Movement in Havana in 1979, Castro attacked the Chinese and the US as two “archenemies” of the developing world and ridiculed Deng Xiaoping as a “numbskull” and a “puppet.”
Despite this baggage, relations improved somewhat when Chinese?Soviet relations warmed under Mr. Gorbachev. The ?collapse of the Soviet Union and Castro’s desperate need for economic and military aid allowed China to step in the political vacuum left by the Soviets.
There can be little doubt about what Cuba wants from China: economic aid in the form of trade and investment from a partner that couldn’t be less interested in human rights. That aid has been going to the island since the 1980s. The first approaches were made on the trade front when Cuba’s foreign trade minister Ricardo Cabrisas visited China and signed several agreements that increased bilateral commerce from $220 million in 1983 to $426 million by 1989.
But the more intriguing question is what does China want from Cuba? Due to Cuba’s economic problems, bilateral trade with China has decreased in the 1990s, falling to $256 million by 1997, the latest year for which data is available. But Chinese investment has picked up steam in the last few years. Some of it, including a bicycle factory, is consumer oriented. But other spending suggests a strategic interest. Western intelligence sources say that China is putting money into Cuban military telecommunications (and possibly biotechnology); as only one example, it is investing in the Terrena aribe Satellite Tracking Base. At the February 1999 meeting with Castro in Havana, Defense Minister Chi Haotian emphasized that relations between the Chinese and Cuban armies have seen “fairly rapid development.”
The reasons for China’s military bonding with Cuba are not immediately obvious. Chinese sales of weapons to Cuba are insignificant, reportedly involving some MiG aircraft parts and other low?value items. Cuba’s potential for becoming a major purchaser of weapons or a +major trading partner is small. But evidence is mounting that China’s main interest in Cuba is not dissimilar to a use that attracted the Soviets to the island: It is an ideal spot for electronic eavesdropping on communications on the American mainland?in other words, a good base for spying. It also is a useful relay point for routing intelligence back home, which is what the Soviets used it for back in the Cold War days.
There’s no doubt about Chinese involvement in Cuban communications. In May, a radio station in Cuba began re?broadcasting Chinese information and news from Cuba to Latin America. Radio Marti, a US?government?funded station that beams short-wave radio broadcasts to Cuba, has meanwhile found itself subject to more intense Cuban jamming, according to a reliable source. It is suspected that China is aiding the Cuban effort to drown out Radio Marti.
Of greater interest is Chinese listening. Intelligence sources say that the 1970s Soviet electronic facility in Lourdes, near Havana, is still operational for monitoring US military and commercial communications. These sources also say that China using and improving Cuban capabilities in this area and moving to develop its own on the island. An internal May 13, 1999 US government ?memorandum claims that “China may have participated in the construction of a short?wave transmitting site” in Havana. The US administration official I spoke with said the US is aware of the rumors that China seeks to establish a signals collection facility on the island, “but we are not aware of any evidence that such a facility exists.” Richard Baum, UCLA professor of political science and China expert, points out that an electronic collection facility in Cuba “would fit with Chinese electronic warfare priorities and ,objectives.”
After the release of the congressional “Cox report” detailing Chinese espionage at a US nuclear laboratory, it is hardly a secret that the Chinese are operating an extensive spy network in the Western hemisphere. So it should be no further surprise that the Chinese might want an electronic espionage base close to American shores. China is not in the same league as the Soviets were in the 1960s or 70s, but the People’s Liberation Army hardly regards itself as a friend of the West. If it were, it would not have engaged in such potentially destabilizing practices as shipping advanced weapons to the Syrians and the Iranians.
Indeed, Chinese foreign policy is patient and farsighted. In Cuba, the Chinese seem to be taking a calculated gamble: that the US’s complex relations with and economic interests in China will prevent the Clinton administration from raising a big fuss over China’s activities in Cuba., They may well be right.
Mr. Suchlicki is director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban?American Studies at the’ University of Miami and author of “Cuba: From. Columbus to Castro” Brasseus. 1997