Even as residents of the Bahamas are trying to come to grips with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian, American officials are looking ahead to what could be a grave security concern if United Nations-led relief efforts lead to China establishing a presence just off the Florida coast.
Reports filed by Axios and NPR are heavy on what-ifs and speculation, but generally reflect a concern within the Trump administration that relief efforts could allow China to gain a toehold that could be used for surveillance.
Huawei, a giant Chinese telecommunications firm, is at the center of many concerns.
As Axios noted, the company has already developed a Western Hemisphere presence by helping Caribbean nations with their telecommunications issues — something that will be a major part of the recovery in the Bahamas.
That makes officials queasy about having Huawei potentially operating barely 50 miles from Florida.
“There are certainly concerns about the Chinese having full access to the region,” Fernando Cutz, a former senior director in the Trump administration’s National Security Council, told NPR.
“You could imagine a situation where they would develop intelligence capabilities, intelligence gathering capabilities,” he said.
“And, of course, they could potentially one day have a base, a naval base or some sort of Chinese military base that close to our shore would pose a very significant national security issue for the United States.”
Spying aside, the U.S. does not want China broadening its global influence.
“The administration will see this as part of a broader concern about China investing in countries as a threat to make potentially those countries beholden to China or indebted to China and to diminish the United States’s influence in the Western Hemisphere,” John Dermody, a former deputy legal adviser at the NSC, told NPR.
“I would say that the concern is particularly acute where the investment is going to be in information technology. And in light of the catastrophic damage of the Bahamas, I think that is going to be an issue,” he said.
José Cárdenas, a member of the NSC during the administration of former President George W. Bush, said that while the U.S. can’t impede efforts to help the Bahamas, it needs to point out that any aid from China will have implications.
“The temptation is so great to take advantage of Chinese largesse,” he told NPR.
“But to the peoples of the hemisphere, the United States ought to be very clear in a public diplomacy campaign that the Chinese government largesse comes with a lot of baggage. It comes with a lot of strings attached, and it has implications for democratic institutions and rule of law.”
In comments posted on The Verge in March, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Floria referred to Huawei as a “Chinese state-directed telecom company with a singular goal: undermine foreign competition by stealing trade secrets and intellectual property, and through artificially low prices backed by the Chinese government.”
“The Communist Chinese government poses the greatest, long-term threat to America’s national and economic security, and the US must be vigilant in preventing Chinese state-directed telecoms companies, like Huawei and ZTE, from undermining and endangering America’s 5G networks,” Rubio said at the time.
“The US must develop a long-term, whole-of-government strategy to protect against state-sponsored technology theft and risks to critical supply chains. We must also recognize that the continued threat posed by the Chinese government’s assault on US intellectual property, US businesses, and our government networks and information has the full backing of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
China has already invested heavily in the islands, according to Bahamas-based ILTV.
In February, the outlet reported that the Bahamas and China signed a $12 million agreement, with the money to be used for upgrades to the National Stadium and other unspecified projects.
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