The Wall Street Journal today reported that the U.S. quietly expelled two Chinese Embassy officials on suspicions of espionage after they improperly drove onto a sensitive U.S. military facility in Norfolk, Virginia in September, two U.S. officials familiar with the matter said. This has not been the first time the Chinese have employed their own to gather sensitive information from the Americans.
Last year Chinese national Ji Chaoqun who had gone to the U.S. on a student visa and enlisted in the army reserves was arrested in Chicago and accused of helping Beijing attempt to recruit American scientists and engineers. He successfully provided Beijing with information from background checks on about eight American citizens – some of whom were U.S. defense officials.
The Virgina incident highlights what U.S. officials have said is Beijing’s increasingly aggressive intelligence-gathering operations against America, which have heightened tensions between the two economic superpowers even as they try to reach accord on trade and other issues.
The expulsion of the officials, whose names have been kept anonymous, took place as President Donald Trump was trying to reach a broad trade agreement with China, and while he was under pressure to take a more forceful stance backing student protesters in Hong Kong. Neither side has publicly acknowledged the incident, which was earlier reported by the New York Times. It is believed to be the first time the U.S. has expelled Chinese diplomats for suspected espionage in more than 30 years.
According to on U.S. official, the two Chinese Embassy in Washington drove about a mile onto the base before they were stopped and detained. As reported by The Times, the group, which included the officials’ wives, attempted to evade military personnel who pursued them and stopped only after firetrucks blocked their way. The Chinese officials then claimed they had not understood the guards’ English instructions.
It is not clear which U.S. military installation was breached. The Norfolk area has numerous military sites, including several that house Special Operations forces, including Navy SEALs.
The activity by the Chinese officials seems an unlikely way to gather secret intelligence. Rather, it may have been a way to test the base’s security, or to send a psychological signal to the Americans that Beijing intends to become more aggressive in its espionage. The Chinese Embassy didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is responsible for tracking foreign diplomats and stopping foreign espionage inside the U.S., declined to comment. The State Department declined to comment.
“We take the security of all our installations very seriously. We don’t have any information to provide about the alleged incident,” a Pentagon spokesman said. “We refer you to the Department of State for questions about Chinese diplomats.”
Washington and Beijing are trying to compete and cooperate simultaneously in different arenas. The U.S. and China last week agreed to a so-called phase-one trade deal after months of tense negotiations.
The State Department in October imposed new restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the U.S., requiring that they notify them before any meetings they have with state and local officials, or with educational and research institutions.
Lawmakers are also focused on new allegations of China’s attempts to influence American academia and public opinion. A report from the director of National Intelligence is blunt: “China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community…”
This compelled Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and Representative Francis Rooney (R., Fla.) introduce the Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2018 to help colleges and universities protect against malicious foreign actors. The bill would ask the FBI to designate a list of “foreign intelligence threats to higher education,” which would be subject to heightened scrutiny and transparency. “Too many universities, I think, are gullible, are not realizing the magnitude of this threat,” Cruz warned. “This is a concerted, organized, systematic threat to undermine our universities and undermine our economy and we need to be serious to combat it.”
Regrettably, some, such as Representative Judy Chu (D., Calif.) have accused them of racial profiling, thereby delaying the bill from becoming law. Chu objects to their bill as an “irresponsible” attempt to “categorize an entire country of people en masse as spies.” Cynthia Choi, co–executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, told the Huffington Post the bill was “just wrong” and “a bogus attempt to whip up fear and animosity towards Chinese and Chinese Americans.”
All things being equal, just like the Russians, the Chinese are not going to relent until they surpass the U.S. on all fronts. In 2010 former counter intelligence chief Michelle Van Cleave said there is much work to be done in the battle against Chinese espionage. After the Norfolk incident, it seems as if America still has much more to do before this matter, if ever, is resolved.