In a world with enough provocations from hostile nuclear-armed states already, it was unnerving to see the Wall Street Journal report this month that China and Cuba had reached a secret agreement for China to build an electronic eavesdropping facility there, in what the paper characterized as “a brash new geopolitical challenge by Beijing to the U.S.” The Journal attributed the information to “U.S. officials familiar with highly classified intelligence,” and CNN said its sources confirmed the scoop.

The last time a hostile, nuclear-armed, communist superpower surprised the United States by attempting to expand its presence on the island nation 90 miles south of Florida, the world endured the Cuban missile crisis.

But within a few hours, the White House offered a vaguely worded denial. John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told Reuters, “We have seen the report. It’s not accurate.” But Kirby wouldn’t specify what about the report was incorrect.

Two days later, on Saturday, the White House finally elaborated with a not-so-reassuring update: “This is an ongoing issue, and not a new development” — since at least 2019. In other words, Relax, America, China has been using Cuba as a spy base against us for years!

According to the White House, when the Biden administration came to office in January 2021, officials were briefed on China’s efforts to expand its global military and intelligence presence. That briefing included “intelligence collection facilities” in Cuba, which were upgraded in 2019.

The White House also took a swipe at the Wall Street Journal’s scoop, saying “the arrangement as characterized in the reporting does not comport with our understanding.” One of CNN’s sources characterized that statement as “semantic quibbling.”

In any case, both things can be true: China has spied on the United States from Cuba for years, and the new facility would be a dramatic expansion of efforts to intercept U.S. communications.

The Biden team’s belated we-knew-about-this-all-along spin isn’t all that different from the administration’s response in February to the Chinese spy balloon, when the White House attempted to keep the balloon’s presence secret, insisted it represented no major intelligence threat, waited until it had crossed the continent, shot it down and then, much later, administrations sources admitted that the balloon was able to gather intelligence from several sensitive U.S. military sites.

The White House’s emphasis that the China-Cuba surveillance problem was “inherited” is an echo of the attempt to shift blame for China’s balloon surveillance to the Trump administration.

The timing of the Chinese spy facility in Cuba revelation couldn’t be much worse for the Biden administration. When the president was at the Group of Seven conference last month, he sounded awfully optimistic that U.S.-China relations would soon improve: “Then this silly balloon that was carrying two freight cars’ worth of spying equipment was flying over the United States, and it got shot down, and everything changed in terms of talking to one another. I think you’re going to see that begin to thaw very shortly.”

Does this sound like a thaw? Since then, we’ve seen Chinese government hacking of U.S. defense systems in Guam, a near-collision between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels in the Taiwan Strait, and a Chinese fighter jet flying “directly in front of — and within 400 feet of the nose” of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane, “forcing the U.S. aircraft to fly through its wake turbulence.” Oh, and China’s defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, tore into the United States at a conference in Singapore.

Could a Biden administration attempt at diplomatic re-engagement with Beijing nonetheless work? Maybe. No doubt there are corners of the Chinese government that are more bellicose and corners that are more interested in stability and avoiding confrontation. Maybe diplomatic engagement can strengthen the hands of the doves.

Foreign Policy magazine’s deputy editor, James Palmer, warns that “China’s consistent lack of interest in engaging with the United States seems to come from the very top.” In other words, China isn’t warmly reciprocating U.S. outreach or encouraging the Biden-predicted thawing because Xi Jinping doesn’t want improved relations.

For diplomatic re-engagement to work, a clear-eyed measurement of the effectiveness of this approach would be required, and a willingness to switch back to sticks when carrots don’t get results. Plenty of U.S. enemies in the past have regarded diplomacy as a tool for stringing Washington along, happily accepting concrete concessions in exchange for promises they never intended to keep.

Unfortunately, based on the evidence so far, there’s little reason to think President Biden and his team are willing to admit when their approaches aren’t working. Better to first deny, then blame Donald Trump.

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