Belgium’s homeland security service, the Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE), told EUobserver on Monday that it has investigated a potential Chinese espionage threat in Malta’s EU embassy in Brussels.
“There were Chinese people who were involved in the renovation of the Dar Malta embassy in 2007 and it caught our attention,” Belgium’s homeland security service said.
“There has never been any evidence that Chinese spy activities have [actually] taken place from this building and we never said that was the case,” the VSSE added.
The comments came after French newspaper Le Monde, last Friday, reported on long-held VSSE suspicions that Chinese intelligence had installed surveillance equipment in Malta’s EU embassy in Brussels in 2007, when a Chinese firm renovated the building, EUobserver reported.
The VSSE had been tipped off by British intelligence, Le Monde said, citing confidential files, and Belgium’s security chief had passed on concerns to the then Belgian foreign minister, Didier Reynders, it added.
Belgium is required to warn EU institutions’ security services about threats under a bilateral accord — but it appears they held off telling them, for quite a long time.
The head of the EU foreign service, Josep Borrell, confirmed last Friday the EU had not been told anything, the EUobserver reported.
“If the Belgians have something to tell us [on the China-Malta threat], they will, but for the time being [that] hasn’t happened,” Borrell told press.
It was suggested that the Belgian authorities had been concerned “for years” that this equipment was being used to spy across the road on the EU’s main institutions, The Guardian reported.
The allegation follows the launch by German prosecutors of an investigation into a former EU diplomat suspected of committing espionage on behalf of China.
If Malta’s EU embassy had been compromised, it was a “grave security risk” not just because it overlooked the European Commission HQ, but because EU institutions and member states’ “sensitive documents” flowed through Malta’s IT systems there, Dutch liberal MEPs Bart Groothuis and Malik Azmani noted.
They also called for an EU “security review” and a “full enquiry” into who knew what and when, the EUobserver reported.
They also asked Borrell if he agreed that Malta’s decision to let the Chinese renovate its embassy had created “unacceptable security and political risks?”
“These kinds of things are normally done behind closed doors, and that’s fine … but if there was knowledge of an espionage threat, I don’t see any reason in them [Belgium] not having mentioned it [to the EU],” Groothuis told this website.
For its part, the Maltese government has tried to rubbish Le Monde’s revelations, saying China had merely donated “new furniture” to its EU mission.
As a precaution, televisions donated by the Chinese that could be connected to a power source were not installed and all the wooden furniture was scanned on arrival, one Maltese government source told the Times of Malta, The Guardian reported.
Malta, in recent years, has courted Chinese and Russian investment, the EUobserver reported.
A Chinese firm, Shanghai Electric Power, for instance, bought a 33% stake in Maltese energy supplier Enemalta in 2014 — shortly before Enemalta became embroiled in corruption allegations linked to the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.
China is building a five-storey embassy in Malta on a 19,000 sq-metre site and concerns have been raised about the abuse of the so-called golden visas being sold to wealthy Chinese citizens allowing free movement across the EU, The Guardian reported.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Belgium said the espionage claims were false.