The United States expelled at least two Chinese diplomats for spying on a U.S. military base, according to a report from The New York Times, marking the first time the U.S. has taken action to prevent and punish Chinese spying in at least three decades.
The Times reports that the expulsions stem from an incident that took place in September — an incident that neither the United States nor the Chinese government made public at the time.
Two Chinese officials, one of whom may have been an intelligence expert “operating under diplomatic cover” drove onto a military base in Virginia, according to reports, only to be intercepted by military vehicles. The two “diplomats” then tried to evade capture, leading military officials on a chase and stopping “only when fire trucks blocked their path.”
“The Chinese officials and their wives drove up to a checkpoint for entry to the base, said people briefed on the episode. A guard, realizing that they did not have permission to enter, told them to go through the gate, turn around and exit the base, which is common procedure in such situations,” the Times reported. “But the Chinese officials instead continued on to the base, according to those familiar with the incident. After the fire trucks blocked them, the Chinese officials indicated that they had not understood the guard’s English instructions, and had simply gotten lost, according to people briefed on the matter.”
The Chinese, it seems, have ramped up efforts to spy on the U.S. military — or, at least, the Trump Administration seems to believe the Chinese have intensified their intelligence gathering, perhaps in response to President Donald Trump’s tougher political and economic stances with regard to the Chinese government. The president has been locked in tough trade talks with the Asian powerhouse and, most recently, indicated that he supports pro-democracy (and anti-Chinese interference) efforts in Hong Kong.
“In recent months, Chinese officials with diplomatic passports have become bolder about showing up unannounced at research or government facilities, American officials said, with the infiltration of the military base only the most remarkable instance,” according to the Times.
At least one incident did make headlines. In March, a Chinese national was captured by security officers at the president’s “southern White House,” Mar-a-Lago. She told law enforcement she’d simply gotten lost, but she had a purse full of electronic devices, some of which could have been used to spy on the president or other VIPs visiting the Florida estate. She was sentenced to eight months in prison in November.
In response to the perceived uptick in Chinese intelligence gathering, Trump Administration officials announced stricter rules for Chinese diplomats in October, “requiring them to provide notice before meeting with local or state officials or visiting educational and research institutions.”
The United States last booted Chinese officials back in 1987, when a pair of Chinese diplomats serving at the Chinese embassy were discovered to be information gatherers. Others, though, have been punished under the U.S. justice system. “Last month, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former C.I.A. officer, was sentenced to 19 years in prison, one of several former American intelligence officials sentenced this year for spying for Beijing,” according to the NYT.