China and Cuba are getting closer. Now is the time for Biden to reengage with Havana

Few countries in the Western Hemisphere have evoked for Americans the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine as much as has Cuba. For years, the Soviets used the island nation 103 miles off the coast of Florida as a listening post, and, in 1962, they brought the world to the brink of existential conflict by secretly placing nuclear ballistic missiles on the island.

Today, America’s most worrisome unwelcome guest in the Caribbean is China. That’s also true elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

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Beijing has been using Cuba as a spy base since 2019, the White House said last week. The Biden administration’s statement was aimed at refuting a Wall Street Journal report that China was planning to build a new listening post in Cuba, though, given the history, it’s anything but comforting to know that Beijing has been eavesdropping on the U.S. from close range for the last four years.

China’s spy shop in Cuba is far more worrying than spy balloons over Montana. Unlike the U.S., Beijing does not have overseas military bases dotting the world. China’s desire, however, for a much broader global military presence burns brightly, and its espionage activities in Cuba could serve as a springboard for a permanent military installation on the island.

Establishing a network of military bases makes sense when you consider China’s ceaseless push to expand its economic might across the globe.

In Latin America, that means safeguarding its investments in energy, farming and mining. Those interests include one of the world’s most sought-after commodities — lithium, a critical component for electric vehicle batteries. China has secured a deal to tap into lithium deposits in Bolivia, one of the world’s biggest sources of the metal.

China isn’t the only global player that has rankled the U.S. with efforts to establish a military presence off the coast of Florida.

In the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to deploy military assets in Cuba as a response to U.S. talk of sanctions, which Washington and its Western allies eventually imposed anyway.

Though Putin ordered the shutdown of the Soviet-era Lourdes electronic surveillance station in Cuba in 2001, he at times has threatened to establish a greater presence in Latin America for what he regards as NATO’s aggression toward Moscow.

In the Western Hemisphere, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping is the one to worry about, not Putin. Both economically and militarily, China looms as the more worrisome threat to U.S. interests. The U.S. can expect China to step up spying from Cuba, and must ensure sensitive American targets are adequately firewalled.

But there’s also a diplomatic approach that the Biden administration should pursue — one that the president should know all too well.

One of the smartest foreign policy moves that Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, made was to reengage Havana. Obama used his executive powers to allow the reopening of embassies in each other’s countries, resume commercial flights, ease restrictions on U.S. computer and telecommunications technology to Cuba and recharge the island’s tourism industry.

Obama recognized the value of ending America’s long-standing policy of isolating Havana — it didn’t make much sense when the rest of the world freely traded with Cuba.

And while his administration was all too aware that the Castro regime continued to muzzle dissent and run roughshod over human rights, there was an awareness that a new generation of leaders would eventually take over in Havana, and that economic engagement would yield better results than disconnection, both for U.S. interests and for the Cuban people.

When Donald Trump took over the White House, he undid Obama’s normalization of relations with Havana and reimposed tougher sanctions on Cuba. The hope that Cubans had for a move toward democratic ideals through the vehicle of commerce and dialogue with the U.S. disappeared.

A Biden commitment to proactively returning to a policy of engagement with Havana would rekindle the aspirations of everyday Cubans for a better, freer life.

It would discourage dangerous makeshift boat voyages to Florida by desperate Cuban migrants who find no cause for hope at home. And it would make Havana think twice about allowing Beijing to exploit Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. coastline.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is slated to fly to Beijing June 18 to meet with senior Chinese officials. We wouldn’t be surprised if Blinken raises with China’s leadership U.S. opposition to Beijing’s spy station in Cuba.

But rekindling engagement with Cuba is another way to get at the problem, and it could pay bigger dividends — for both Havana and Washington.