• China and Cuba have agreed to establish a signals intelligence base in the island country, just 100 miles from the U.S. mainland.
  • The base will be very similar to one the Soviet Union founded during the Cold War.
  • While news of the base isn’t that surprising, keep in mind that the Soviets eventually based nuclear weapons in Cuba.

In a landmark sign of cooperation, China and Cuba have jointly agreed to establish a Chinese intelligence listening post in the island country; it will monitor U.S. military and civil communications, and mirror U.S. attempts to gather intelligence via ships and planes from the Chinese coast. The big question is how far this cooperation between the two countries will go, as the last time Cuba cozied up with an adversary of the United States, it became host to nuclear-tipped missiles.

The agreement, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, will allow China to set up a signals intelligence (SIGINT) listening post in Cuba. Signals intelligence, according to the U.S. National Security Agency, “is intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems that provides a vital window for our nation into foreign adversaries’ capabilities, actions, and intentions.”

Officials speaking to the Journal stated the base could also be used to intercept emails, phone calls, and satellite transmissions; this would likely include both military and civilian communications. When asked about the base, a spokesman for the National Security Council, John Kirby, replied that the U.S. typically takes steps to counter Chinese military activities in the Western Hemisphere: “We monitor it closely, take steps to counter it, and remain confident that we are able to meet all our security commitments at home, in the region, and around the world.”

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Aircraft such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint fly reconnaissance missions off the coast of China, something Beijing has long complained about.
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The base is a direct response to U.S. intelligence collection activities along China’s borders, particularly flights of RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft along the Chinese coastline. China has long complained about the flights, arguing that the U.S. should stay on its side of the planet, but the new base, as well as the flights of long-endurance spy balloons in and around the United States, indicates China is taking steps to enter Washington’s backyard—and even its living room, as the cross-country Chinese spy balloon episode in February 2023 demonstrated.

The China-Cuba spy deal is not surprising. Cuba’s economy is desperate for hard currency, and one of the things Havana can sell is its geo-strategic position. Located just off Florida, the island country nestles in the armpit of the United States, offering unparalleled access to the southeast states and the military bases spread across the southeastern region.

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In the foreground, a row of vehicles and fuel tanks for ballistic missiles, San Cristobal, Cuba, 1962.
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It was this access that the Soviet Union exploited in 1962 with Operation Anadyr. After setting up a listening post, the Soviet Union quickly expanded its military forces in and around the island nation. Anadyr deployed 40,000 Soviet troops to Cuba, including air, land, and sea forces—and nuclear weapons. Soviet nukes in Cuba were meant to counter U.S. nuclear weapons based in Western Europe and Japan, and would have placed the entire Eastern Seaboard under threat. The deployment created a major crisis between the U.S. and USSR.

Could the establishment of a Chinese listening post eventually lead to the deployment of Chinese combat troops, and even nuclear weapons? China and Cuba are not allies in the sense that the USSR and Cuba were; Moscow and Havana were bound by strong ideological ties and revolutionary socialism. The agreement between Beijing and Havana is more transactional, motivated on the Chinese side for a need to counter U.S. spying, and on the Cuban side motivated by a need for hard currency.

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The Soviet Union maintained a listening post, seen here, in Lourdes, Cuba, from 1962 to 1991.
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Still, China will almost certainly send troops to protect the listening post, as much from the prying eyes of Cubans as from the United States. This is a slippery slope that could lead to larger, more powerful ground troops. Those ground troops, hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party could argue, will be on the other side of the planet in the backyard of the strongest military in the world, and will need air and naval support of their own. The more troops, the greater the investment, and eventually someone might argue that those troops would need nuclear weapons to protect themselves.

China is treading in America’s backyard: if it treads lightly, the new base will be merely a footnote in history. The U.S. was able to deal with a similar Soviet base during the Cold War, while eventually improving relations. But if China were to dramatically expand its military footprint in Cuba, it could provoke a new crisis. The United States would no more accept Chinese nukes in Cuba than it did Soviet ones.

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Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.