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The United States' concerns over China's activities in Cuba

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China this week, he raised concerns about China's military and intelligence activities in Cuba. The Wall Street Journal has run a series of articles about alleged spy bases and a possible military training base on the communist island just 90 miles from Florida. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the role of Cuba in Chinese-U.S. relations.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Blinken says right from the start, this administration has been tracking China's growing influence in the Western Hemisphere, especially in Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: This is something we're going to be monitoring very, very closely, and we've been very clear about that. And we will protect our homeland. We will protect our interests.

KELEMEN: China has brushed off the reports, and some experts say the fears may be overblown. Peter Kornbluh tracks Cuba for the National Security Archive, a research center in Washington. He says for decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union maintained a listening base in Cuba, so it's no surprise that China has one, too.

PETER KORNBLUH: Countries spy on each other. The United States has all sorts of listening and espionage bases targeting China, and that has not necessarily made it a greater threat to China, just like the expansion of Chinese intelligence in Cuba, I don't think, makes China a greater threat to the United States.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is also worried that China is trying to expand its military presence on the island, amid reports that it's in talks with Cuba on building a training center. That might be China's attempt to respond to U.S. military activities in Asia, says Margaret Myers, the director of the Asia and Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

MARGARET MYERS: Whether this facility develops in the way that it's been described is unclear. But certainly it would be indicative of a Chinese interest in growing its presence in this respect, very close to the United States, just as the U.S. has been doing to some degree in the Pacific.

KELEMEN: Myers can't imagine China changing course just because Blinken asked them to. And if the U.S. really wants to counter Chinese influence in this hemisphere, she says it should focus more on trade and investment. China has become a top trade partner for many countries in the region.

MYERS: Certainly, we need to keep an eye on things that are happening in the intelligence gathering space or the security space, but the question is largely an economic one. And, you know, economic engagement is critical certainly for the region but has political implications and implications as concerns U.S. national security and U.S. involvement in and influence in the region.

KELEMEN: In Cuba's case, the U.S. has maintained an embargo on the communist island for decades. The Obama administration negotiated an opening, though that was reversed by President Trump, and this current administration has kept a tough line. Peter Kornbluh says U.S. policy is pushing Cuba closer to China.

KORNBLUH: And a lot of critics of that policy of severe sanctions against Cuba have pointed out that the Russians and the Chinese would come in and fill the void that the United States has left in its relations with Cuba.

KELEMEN: Both he and Myers doubt China will have a presence in Cuba that comes even close to what the Soviet Union had on the island. Myers points out that China's foreign ministry calls Cuba a good comrade, and there are close political ties. But Chinese economic investment is limited. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "SCAR TISSUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.