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If China succeeds in taking over a Russian spy base in Cuba, it won’t help the communist giant much in its intelligence-gathering operation, says Stratfor, the global intelligence company.
A report in Russia’s Izvestia newspaper stating that China may take over Russia’s electronic intelligence-gathering base near Lourdes, Cuba, continues to circulate in the international media. The original Izvestia article was released in mid-May, around the time Russia was inking a deal to form a NATO-Russia council on security issues and just prior to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s visit to Beijing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his intention to shut down the Lourdes facility last October. No agreement has been reached yet on a closure, and Russia still reportedly has some personnel and surveillance equipment there.
That China may be interested in listening and intelligence facilities in Cuba is nothing new. Beijing already has some intelligence assets in the country, and unless they were set to inherit all of the Russian equipment and intelligence at Lourdes, moving to the facility would offer little additional advantage. What is more intriguing is Russia’s decision to broadcast China’s interest in the base.
By announcing to the world that Beijing may take over Lourdes, Moscow ensures that any Chinese moves in Cuba – or Latin America, for that matter – are viewed with even more suspicion than before. The thought of the Chinese government taking over a Russian base that was a thorn in Washington’s side throughout the Cold War is enough to raise questions from even the most pro-China elements in the U.S. government.
For China, setting up a facility at Lourdes fits with its overall strategy of establishing outposts at key nodes around the world. Yet Beijing normally is more discrete with its forward positioning, such as encouraging Chinese companies to take up leases on foreign soil rather than overtly establishing military facilities overseas. Furthermore, taking up full residence at Lourdes could prove extremely costly to China. According to Russian sources, Moscow was paying Havana between $5 billion to $6 billion a year to lease the base.
Yet Russian military intelligence sources confirm the Izvestia article, at least as far as China’s interest in Lourdes is concerned. According to one source, negotiations between Beijing and Havana last March addressed the base issue, though to what extent China is interested remains unknown. Beijing may simply be seeking to scavenge the base for leftover Russian technology or information after Moscow withdraws, or it could be looking to lease some or all of the facility.
Either way, Washington’s response likely will be muted. An expanded Chinese listening post in Cuba is a far cry from the Cuban missile crisis, during which an aggressive adversary was seen as establishing a first-strike outpost on the U.S. coast. Rather, even if China does completely take over Lourdes, the move remains more symbolic than substantive for now.
China’s presence in Cuba is part of a long-term strategic consideration for the United States, which must carefully balance economic, political and security interests with its potential Pacific competitor. Despite the political rhetoric that likely will surface, there is not an imminent crisis brewing between the two sides.