Tue, Dec 03, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Belgium — Den of spies and gateway for China

The host to EU institutions and NATO headquarters, the European nation is an alluring draw card for Chinese spies where military officials, diplomats and lawmakers mingle, sharing gossip and ideas

By Alan Crawford and Peter Martin  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

When a suspected Chinese spy was extradited to the US last year, the US Department of Justice praised the “significant assistance” given by authorities in Belgium.

Xu Yanjun was arrested in Belgium after going there to meet a contact “for the purpose of discussing and receiving the sensitive information he had requested,” the US indictment said.

Xu was charged with attempting to commit economic espionage, with GE Aviation the main target. The case is pending.

Belgium might seem an unlikely destination for a Chinese agent, but it is a den of spies, the Belgian State Security Service (VSSE) says. It says the number of operatives is at least as high as during the Cold War and Brussels is their “chessboard.”

Host to the EU’s institutions and NATO headquarters, Belgium is an alluring draw card for aspiring espionage-makers. Diplomats, lawmakers and military officials mingle, sharing gossip and ideas, while Belgium’s strategic location makes it important to China in its own right as a place to exert its influence in Europe.

“The mere fact that we hold international institutions such as NATO and the EU makes Belgium a natural focus for China,” Brussels-based Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations research fellow Bruno Hellendorff said. “It’s common knowledge that there are many spies in Brussels, and these days espionage from China is a major and growing concern.”

German newspaper Die Welt in February cited an unpublished assessment by the EU’s European External Action Service that about 250 Chinese spies were working in Brussels — more than from Russia.

The Chinese Mission to the EU said that it was “deeply shocked” at the “unfounded” reports.

“China respects the sovereignty of all countries and does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries,” it said.

Yet the incidents keep coming.

A Chinese director of the Confucius Institute at VUB Brussels University was in October barred from entering the EU Schengen area for eight years after being accused of espionage, a charge he denies.

An insight into the methods employed by China are outlined in the Xu indictment. His duties allegedly included obtaining trade secrets from aviation and aerospace companies in the US, “and throughout Europe.”

He used aliases and invited experts on paid trips to China to deliver presentations at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, operated by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. He ensured targets carried a work computer whose data could be captured.

The US remains at the core of Beijing’s espionage activities — the head of the FBI in July said that China was trying to “steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense.”

Yet Europe appears increasingly in focus, with cases of so-called interference by China identified in Poland, France, Germany and the UK.

“The Chinese are becoming far more active than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” said former British diplomat Charles Parton, who has more than two decades of experience of China.

Espionage is “the far end of the spectrum” of interference that ranges from academia to “technological spillover” — collecting data to send back to China for mining, London-based Royal United Services Institute senior associate fellow Parton said.

Belgium’s elite generally has a relaxed attitude toward China that can open it to charges of complacency. A fractured political system makes it harder to craft a unified strategy — there is still no government six months after elections.

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