President Trump has promised to help the Bahamas recover from Hurricane Dorian, the devastating storm that has decimated parts of the island nation.
The United States is not only concerned about the Bahamian people, but also the national security implications if China steps in to help fill the country's vast needs, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Parts of the Bahamas are only about 50 miles off the coast of Florida, raising concerns about the potential for such a powerful economic and political adversary to gain a greater foothold in such proximity.
The Trump administration officially says it is focused right now on the Bahamas' immediate recovery. But U.S. officials tell NPR on background that they're also concerned about the long-term impact, including security implications, of China's presence in the region. Former officials echo those concerns.
The concern is reflective of the administration's broader anxiety around China's influence on the U.S. and the world, from the economy and trade to surveillance.
"There are certainly concerns about the Chinese having full access to the region," said Fernando Cutz, who served as senior director at the National Security Council in the Trump administration until last year. "You could imagine a situation where they would develop intelligence capabilities, intelligence gathering capabilities."
He added: "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 that would pose a very significant national security issue for the United States."
The concerns were first reported by Axios.
Emergency teams from the United States have been sent to help in the Bahamas, where tens of thousands of people need food. Thirty people have been confirmed dead, but the numbers are expected to rise as recovery efforts continue. The administration is encouraging donations via the Center for International Disaster Information website.
"This is part of a broader international response effort that includes Caribbean partners, the United Kingdom, and Canada, so that the government of the Bahamas can provide lifesaving and life sustaining care to their people," said National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis.
The Chinese have made no secret of their interest in expanding their influence in Latin America.
After Trump was elected and vowed to withdraw from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared to Latin American business leaders at a summit in Peru that China was ready to deal.
"China will not shut the door to the outside world, but will open it even wider," Xi told leaders.
The communist government, using its massive resources and ability to move cash quickly, has already become a force in Latin America unlike what many considered possible even a decade or two ago.
The Chinese moved aggressively into the region following the last financial crisis, when there was an incentive for Latin American countries to sell their minerals and commodities to the rapidly growing Asian power.
They have spent billions building roads and telecommunications networks.
More recently, they have extended their reach into the cultural and political arenas, such as blocking U.S. efforts at the United Nations to put more pressure on Venezuela.
John Dermody, who served as a deputy legal adviser at the National Security Council until June, said parts of the administration will be focused on the disaster effort and committed to the people of the islands. But others will be committed to looking at more long-term security concerns.
"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," said Dermody, who is now at the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers. "And 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."
José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials, called the situation complicated.
It's very likely that the Chinese will have some role in the reconstruction of the Bahamas and the United States does not want to be critical of any foreign government offering aid to the Bahamas. But he said the concerns are real. What's important, he said, is that the United States continue its campaign speaking to the broader region that the Chinese presence isn't "all sweetness and light."
"The temptation is so great to take advantage of Chinese largesse," he said. "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."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump has promised that the U.S. will help the Bahamas rebuild.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're helping in a humanitarian way. We've been asked to help by the government of the Bahamas. And we have numerous helicopters. And we're sending some people to give them a hand. They need a big hand.
SHAPIRO: There are more than just humanitarian concerns driving the Trump administration's thinking. The White House is also concerned about national security, specifically that China could play a big role rebuilding the Bahamas. Here to talk about it is White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi.
SHAPIRO: Why would the United States worry about China rebuilding the Bahamas?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the Bahamas are very, very close to the United States. Parts are only about 50 miles from Florida. The Trump administration officially says it's focused now on the Bahamas' immediate recovery. But privately, officials do tell me that they're also concerned about some of the long-term impacts of having one of America's major adversaries working so close to the mainland.
I actually spoke to John Dermody, who was at the National Security Council until earlier this summer. He said there are some in the administration who will see China trying to build leverage in the Western Hemisphere and weaken U.S. influence.
JOHN DERMODY: And 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's going to be an issue.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, the big picture is that this is all part of larger concerns that the Trump administration has about growing Chinese influence around the world.
SHAPIRO: Franco, there is this huge humanitarian crisis in the Bahamas. I mean, we were just hearing about bodies on a beach. Is it premature for the administration to worry about China's role in the redevelopment of the country?
ORDOÑEZ: I mean, totally understood. I mean, we just heard Jason talk about it. And those are immediate needs, and they're overwhelming. And the administration assures me that they're as focused on those as well. But these concerns are more long term, and they're being focused on by different individuals.
And as another former National Security Council official put it to me, you know, there is concern that the Chinese rebuilding the telecommunication system in the Bahamas, which could certainly happen, and that it could make it easier for China to tap into U.S. systems and essentially spy on Americans. Or, he said, the Chinese could eventually gain enough influence to build some type of permanent presence or a base in the region.
Another factor is the Bahamas are a key ally of the United States on important regional issues such as Venezuela. And there are feelings that the United States can't risk losing that dependable support at international forums - take the United Nations or Organization of American States.
SHAPIRO: What options does the U.S. have? I mean, it's hard to imagine the Trump administration offering for the U.S. to singlehandedly rebuild the telecommunication system in the Bahamas, right?
ORDOÑEZ: True. I mean, maybe not much, really, at least as it relates to the Bahamas. The United States has been pushing back very aggressively on Chinese influence. U.S. officials have warned allies in Latin America to be aware of China's predatory lending practices. They always say there are always strings attached.
But it is complicated. The Bahamas have huge needs. The United - and the United States can't do everything, nor do necessarily officials want to do everything considering the limitations that have been put on foreign aid. And if the United States is not willing to pony up aid, then it's hard for the United States to tell countries like China and tell - also tell countries like the Bahamas that they can't accept a helping hand elsewhere.
SHAPIRO: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.