Tensions between the two biggest economies in the world have increased again this week after the United States ordered the closure of the Chinese embassy in Houston, accusing it of being a den of Chinese spies trying to steal data from facilities in Texas.
- Experts and former diplomats say all diplomatic missions gather intelligence, and countries often “turn a blind eye”
- US officials said the Houston consulate’s activities crossed what was acceptable
- Houston is an information center for aerospace and pharmaceutical research facilities
In retaliation, China then ordered the United States to close its consulate in Chengdu, accusing its staff of meddling in its internal affairs.
But espionage experts say intelligence gathering is an important part of what diplomatic missions do, and that often includes not only legal means but also the use of spies to gather “confidential information”.
“They did it, we did it. We only hope to catch them, and hope they don’t arrest us,” said Anthony Glees, an internationally published security and intelligence expert and political professor at Buckingham University.
To some extent, countries choose to “turn a blind eye” to many of these activities because “it is in their mutual interest to do so,” Professor Glees told ABC.
Most of a secret revealed by Edward Snowden in 2014 included detailed information about how the US used its own diplomatic mission to spy on countries around the world, but as a result no US consulate was closed.
But this accepted spy culture does have boundaries, and crossing that line, though rarely, can lead to diplomatic expulsion.
Here we see examples of the past, and why the Houston Chinese consulate – one of five Chinese consulates in the US, along with the embassy in Washington DC – was chosen.
Senior US officials said that espionage activities by Chinese diplomatic missions took place throughout the country, but their activities outside the Houston consulate went far above what was acceptable.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the consulate “a center of spying and theft of intellectual property”, an accusation which China denies “malicious slander”.
A senior State Department official also linked espionage activities from the consulate to China’s pursuit of vaccine research for the new coronavirus.
Professor Glees said Houston is currently an information center because of its aerospace and pharmaceutical research facilities, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would not doubt that the Chinese in Houston are improving intelligence. This is one of the few Chinese consulates, but – in terms of cutting edge research – it might be the best place to be,” he told ABC.
But Professor Glees then asked two important questions.
“Is China trying to do this secretly and therefore breaking the law? People would think it is, but it doesn’t have to be,” he said.
“Do the US, Britain and Australia do the same thing? Of course.”
China’s retaliatory efforts to close the US consulate in Chengdu may also be a choice based on strategic location.
“That’s where the US collects information about Tibet and the development of Chinese strategic weapons in neighboring areas,” said Wu Xinbo, a professor and expert on American studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Has the embassy ever been closed?
Closing of embassies amid espionage allegations is rare, but diplomats accused of spying have been driven out in the past.
In 2018, 153 Russian diplomats were expelled by Britain and the allied countries that followed poisoning experiments of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the city of Salisbury in England.
Russia responded by expelling 23 British diplomats and ordered the closure of the British consulate in St. Petersburg and the office of the British Council in Moscow.
At the height of the Cold War, Britain expelled 25 Soviet diplomats after the defection of Oleg Gordievsky, the former head of KGB operations in London, who had appointed KGB personnel operating at the Soviet embassy in London.
In Canberra, the Soviet embassy was closed in 1954 when an intelligence officer based in the capital defected, offering to provide information about Soviet espionage activities against Australia and west. The Embassy reopened in 1959.
A mysterious burglary
While the expulsion of diplomats and, more than that, the closure of the embassy rarely happens outside the war, Professor Glees said being forced into the consulates of other countries was “absolutely not possible”.
But shortly after the Houston consulate closed, a group of men who appeared to be American officials were seen forcing open the back door of the building.
After the people entered, two uniformed members from the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Bureau arrived to guard the door.
China condemns the breach by saying it violates the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the China-US consular agreement.
“But they will just get away with it because Trump is ready to be reelected and going to China now makes sense politically even if there is no specific reason, to be honest.”
‘Legal spies’ and illegal operators
Professor Glees said consular staff who were officially registered and known as hosts could operate as “legal spies”, but they were required by law to comply with certain rules.
This intelligence meeting, whether confidential or open, can be held in many ways such as through meetings, conferences and visiting universities, businesses or research centers.
“Then you have ‘illegal’ – officers and agents who are not listed in the embassy’s name list … assuming your identity or just using the excuse to be in the recipient country to conduct espionage on his part,” he said.
But even “legal spies” are sometimes involved in illegal espionage, most often by recruiting agents to act on their behalf.
Chen Yonglin, former Chinese diplomat defected to Australia in 2005, said “espionage is normal for all governments”.
He said while Chinese diplomats were gathering information openly “to avoid being accused of engaging in secret intelligence work “, they might also provide primary assistance for covert operations.
“But most operations are run independently by various [government] department, “he told ABC, adding that in many cases Chinese state-run companies could provide safer homes.
Mr Chen said most of the infiltration could be done more effectively through migration – especially skilled workers and experts.
Instead of using embassies or consulates, they can communicate directly with Chinese officials or meet in a third country, making this operation very difficult to detect.
The most common diplomats work to create connections and place students and experts in the main research department to openly obtain information about new technologies and developments that can then be used by China, he said, adding that such activities are very broad in Australia where his response to theft of intellectual property has been “weak”.
Instead, the Trump administration has taken a hard line against China in trade and politics.
What might happen next?
Issues ranging from trade to the coronavirus pandemic, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its crackdown on Hong Kong, have plunged relations between Washington and Beijing to what experts say is the lowest level in decades.
Following a burglary on the now closed Houston site, China has threatened to cause a reaction, and the White House has not ruled out the possibility of closing more embassies.
While in a related incident, a researcher who fled to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after allegedly lying to investigators about his Chinese military service was also arrested by US officials.
“As far as closing additional embassies, it’s always possible,” US President Donald Trump told reporters earlier this week.
But Chen said while the US appeared to distance itself from China, further responses from Beijing were likely to be held back.
“China benefits broadly from globalization,” he said.
“China’s economy relies on international trade and shared technology and they don’t want to risk breaking up with the US or Australia.”