Singaporean academic Jun Wei Yeo has acknowledged serving as a spy for China. Image: Facebook

SINGAPORE – An espionage case involving a Singaporean national who recently pled guilty to spying for Chinese intelligence services in a US federal court has stoked concerns that citizens of the ethnic Chinese majority city-state be regarded with greater suspicion by the United States amid a new Cold War atmosphere.

Tasked with obtaining non-public information about politics, economics, and diplomacy, 39-year-old Singaporean academic and doctoral degree candidate Jun Wei Yeo admitted to establishing a fake consultancy and using social networking site LinkedIn to cultivate ties with US military and government employees holding high-level security clearances.

Yeo, a former PhD student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), an autonomous postgraduate school of the National University of Singapore (NUS) which trains some of Asia’s top civil servants and government officials, now faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison after confessing to acting as an illegal agent for Chinese intelligence.

Though analysts believe the spying case isn’t likely to have a major impact on Singapore’s ties with either the US or China, most agree that the island-state’s efforts to maintain a delicate diplomatic balance between the two major powers will be more difficult as US-China relations deteriorate sharply ahead of the US presidential election in November.

“The incident itself serves to highlight the difficulty of trying to thread the needle between Beijing and Washington, given the widespread influence from both major powers across Singapore society,” said Ja Ian Chong, a Harvard-Yenching Institute visiting scholar. “The incident itself does not change that. It’s more a symptom of these challenges.”

With China as its largest trading partner, and the US as its largest single country investor, the city-state sees its interests best served through neutrality. Singapore’s leaders have, however, regularly cautioned that a deterioration of US-China ties could upend multilateralism by forcing Southeast Asian countries to choose sides.

Yeo, who also goes by the name Dickson Yeo, was recruited as an intelligence asset after being invited to give a presentation to Chinese academics in Beijing in 2015. His doctorate research focused on China’s treatment of small states along the trajectory of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) maritime routes and land infrastructure networks.

Dickson Yeo in a photo from his personal Facebook page. Image: Facebook

At a court hearing on July 24 in Washington, Yeo confessed to acting under the direction of Chinese intelligence officials who initially claimed to represent China-based think tanks and instructed him to spot American targets with access to “valuable non-public information” who were dissatisfied with their work or facing financial difficulties.

According to court documents, Yeo set up a political consultancy in the US in 2018, Resolute Consulting of Singapore, using the same name as a prominent US public and government relations firm. He then scoured LinkedIn, which is widely used for job hunting and career networking, to find individuals with promising résumés and job descriptions.

Based in Washington DC from January to July 2019, Yeo used his time as a doctoral fellow at the George Washington University to attend think tank events and network with lobbyists and defense contractors. He hired the American professionals he targeted to write political reports that he said were meant for his consultancy’s clients in Asia.

The reports, however, were sent to the Chinese government without the knowledge of their authors. Of the more than 400 résumés Yeo received in response to job listings he posted, 90% came from US military or government personnel with security clearances, according to court documents. He admitted to passing on notable résumés to his Chinese handlers.

For instance, Yeo engaged a civilian working with the US Air Force on the F-35B aircraft program who had admitted to having financial difficulties. A separate US army officer assigned to the Pentagon confided in Yeo that he was traumatized by his military tours in Afghanistan and was paid to write a report on how the withdrawal of US forces there would impact China.

Upon his return to the US in November 2019 with instructions to turn the army officer into a “permanent conduit of information”, Yeo was stopped by US law enforcement agents and arrested after he landed at the airport. The city-state’s Home Affairs Ministry said on July 26 that investigations into Yeo had “not revealed any direct threat to Singapore’s security.”

At a July 27 press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin flatly denied knowledge of Yeo’s case and denounced US attempts to stoke “paranoia” in a bid to smear China. “US law enforcement has repeatedly made accusations about Chinese espionage activities,” he said. “It has reached a state of extreme suspicion.”

China stands accused by the US of using students for surveillance purposes. Image: Facebook/CNN

Ryan Clarke, a senior fellow at the East Asia Institute, a Singapore-based think tank, sees such Chinese intelligence operations in the US and elsewhere as being highly targeted and tethered to specific state goals. “These types of operations are quite simple with relatively few moving parts, which is why they are replicable at scale,” he said  

“The general approach is to establish target priorities and then proceed to collect what appear to be rather innocuous inputs with relatively limited value when viewed in isolation. Sometimes the information may not even be classified. This is done on a massive scale in-country with a parallel synthesis-fusion operation in China itself,” Clarke told Asia Times.  

“We’ve seen operations against a range of American targets, from Covid-19 vaccine research to the F-35 fighter jet program,” Clark added. “The strategic logic is that, in the aggregate, this massive collection and synthesis-fusion effort will yield unique findings and insights which the Chinese Communist Party can leverage across a range of domains.”

Alan Chong, an associate professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, noted that Yeo’s case demonstrates the “grey areas” that exist within the networking spaces of regional think tanks, where informal diplomacy is carried out between government officials and representatives from academia and business.  

“Most of the think tanks in Asia are substituting for direct government-to-government relations, so if you have this kind of twilight diplomacy conducted by academics or under academic cover, one should expect more cases like Dickson Yeo’s to surface at some point. Under the cover of diplomatic networking, anything can go on,” he said.

“Both Beijing and Washington are, however, not likely to make this an issue with Singapore because there are bigger issues at stake. Singapore is occupying currently an exceptionally favorable position in relation to economic links with China. I believe neither side wants to upset the relationship,” Chong of RSIS added.

Yeo is receiving consular assistance and faces one charge of operating illegally as a foreign agent. He will face sentencing on October 9. As a first-time offender, he is expected to receive much less than the maximum 10-year jail term the charge carries. The 39-year-old is the first Singaporean since 1998 to have been caught working for a foreign intelligence agency.

But Yeo’s case is the third espionage incident in Singapore since 2017 to involve individuals with links to academia. Héctor Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, a Mexican microbiologist and heart specialist who held a post at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, was arrested in the US city of Miami in February on suspicion of spying for the Russian government.

Academic Huang Jing has been accused of being a foreign agent for an undisclosed country. Image: Twitter

Three years ago, authorities in Singapore accused Huang Jing, a prominent ethnic Chinese academic with US citizenship, of being an agent of foreign influence for an undisclosed country. He was permanently banned from the city-state for allegedly providing “privileged information” to senior Singapore officials with the intent of affecting their decisions.

Huang had held a senior position at LKYSPP as the Lee Foundation professor on US-China relations. Though Singapore never publicly specified which country it accused the academic of acting on behalf of, it was widely presumed to be China. Huang has consistently denied accusations that he sought to covertly advance a foreign agenda.

Interest in Huang’s 2017 expulsion from Singapore has been renewed following Yeo’s conviction in the US. Huang, now a distinguished professor and dean at the Beijing Language and Culture University’s Institute of National and Regional Studies, had served as a PhD adviser to Yeo when the two were at LKYSPP.

Bilahari Kausikan, a retired former Singapore diplomat known for his outspoken views on the subject of Chinese influence operations, said in a Facebook post following the news of Yeo’s guilty plea that it was “not unreasonable to assume” that Yeo had been recruited or at least talent-spotted by China’s Ministry of State Security while at LKYSPP.

The post drew a direct link between Yeo and Huang, who Bilahari wrote was expelled and banned “for being a Chinese agent of influence.” Huang denied that he had ever recruited Yeo to spy for Beijing and said that Bilahari’s remarks were “nonsense” and “unreasonable.” He called on the former envoy to either prove the comments or retract them.

In a separate Facebook post, Bilhari warned that Yeo’s case could lead to Singaporeans facing greater suspicion in the eyes of the US government. Around 76% of the city-state’s total population of 5.8 million are ethnic Chinese. Analysts say there are few reliable ways to assess the pervasiveness of intelligence recruitment among Singapore’s ethnic Chinese.

“Alleged efforts by Beijing to activate and recruit among ethnic Chinese are supposedly widespread and do not target Singaporeans specifically. It just so happens that Singapore has a majority ethnic Chinese population, so observers may read such efforts as being more widespread than may actually be the case,” said the Harvard-Yenching Institute’s Chong.

In recent years, scholars have warned about Beijing’s outreach operations to ethnic Chinese in Singapore.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang laughs with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a signing ceremony at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, April 8, 2018. Picture: Parker Song/Pool via Reuters
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang laughs with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a signing ceremony at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, April 8, 2018. Picture: Parker Song/Pool

A report published last July by US research institute the Jamestown Foundation claimed that China uses cultural organizations, clan associations and business associations, among others, to gain influence and lobby the city-state’s government to take pro-Beijing positions.

“Perhaps to some extent Singapore Chinese may be seen a little differently by other countries, perhaps there may be a trust deficit where they could be lumped together with Chinese from China, if they take Dickson Yeo’s case as an example,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, a policy and business consultancy.

“This could be the fallout from what Dickson Yeo has done. However, it is very difficult to quantify the extent of any such suspicion. But given that this case has captured global headlines, it may well serve as a teachable moment for budding academics as far as what to stay clear of,” said Mustafa.