It is a plot that could have come straight from the pages of a John le Carre novel. The head of a nation’s secret intelligence service is caught in a honeytrap: captured on camera with a mysterious younger woman at Bangkok International Airport and covertly followed to their hotel. A secret liaison in an exotic location, used to blackmail the spymaster of an adversary, who misappropriated public funds to pay for the clandestine affaire d’amour.
This is what the Chinese Ministry of State Security wants people to believe after it used a Thai-language “cutout” Twitter account to release a “leaked” photograph of National Security Bureau Director-General Chen Ming-tong (陳明通) passing through immigration at Bangkok International Airport in July with three other unidentified people, whose faces were pixelated. The account also released an image purporting to show the record of Chen’s immigration clearance and another showing an invoice for his sojourn at the Peninsula Bangkok Hotel.
The bureau is staying mum about the reason for Chen’s visit to Thailand, declining to confirm or deny his itinerary.
However, Taiwanese security analysts believe that Chen was likely on an official visit to liaise with his counterpart at Thailand’s National Intelligence Agency.
It appears to be a classic case of Chinese cognitive warfare, designed to simultaneously discredit the bureau’s reputation in the eyes of Taiwanese and Thai authorities, and to demoralize its employees. The inference is that Taiwan’s security services are serial bunglers that cannot even keep the movements of its director a secret.
The operation, likely carried out by Chinese cyberoperatives hacking into Thai government and hotel computer systems, was probably also intended to deter Thai intelligence agencies from cooperating with their Taiwanese counterparts, by unsubtly conveying the message: “Beijing is watching you.”
China’s arrogant behavior might ultimately backfire. Beijing has been courting Thailand for more than a decade through its Belt and Road Initiative, as it is part of the China-Laos-Thailand Corridor, which provides China with land access to the Indian Ocean, potentially circumventing a possible naval blockade by the US and its allies. The leak would likely be interpreted by Thai officials, and other regional nations, as further proof that Beijing cannot be trusted.
Infiltrating the secure computer networks of foreign nations is part of modern-day espionage, but publicly releasing stolen information on the Internet, as a means to embarrass the government of the targeted nation and force a change of policy, demonstrates new heights of arrogance on China’s part.
The operation also indicates a worrying new digital front to China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, which suggests Beijing believes it has a right to obstruct nations from cooperating with Taiwan on intelligence and security matters.
Above all, it demonstrates the true, damaging nature of Beijing’s “one China” principle, which the majority of nations, by severing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, have signed up to. The “one China” principle is why Beijing believes it has carte blanche to coerce Thailand over its intelligence cooperation with Taiwan. Thailand, like many other nations, has effectively surrendered an element of its foreign policy to a foreign power.
Instead of kowtowing to Beijing, countries should uphold the principle that sovereign nations set their own foreign policy and no external power has a right to dictate which nations they interact with.
The Bangkok affair should also serve as a warning to governments around the world: Integrate Chinese-made telecommunications and security equipment into secure computer networks at your peril.
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