Malta’s ties to China have come under the spotlight after Belgium’s intelligence services confirmed they have been investigating suspicions that Beijing has been spying from the Maltese embassy, which is opposite the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.
A spokesperson for Belgium’s homeland security service made the unusual disclosure about the the inquiry after French newspaper Le Monde reported on the case.
Le Monde said that an investigation had been launched by the Belgian intelligence services after a tip-off from British agents about China using Malta’s embassy as a “spy tower” to eavesdrop on EU institutions.
The claim centered on a “cooperation agreement” made in 2006 worth 300,000 euros (US$328,830 at the current exchange rate) between the Chinese and Maltese governments, through which Beijing had donated furniture to the country’s newly purchased 13-story embassy in Brussels.
Le Monde said 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 allegation follows the launch of an investigation by German prosecutors into a former EU diplomat suspected of committing espionage on behalf of China.
A spokesperson for Belgium’s homeland security service confirmed their interest in the activities at the Maltese embassy, but added that no proof of espionage by China had come to light.
“The Chinese were involved in the renovation of the Maltese embassy building in 2007, and that caught our attention — without being alerted to it by any foreign service, but there has never been any evidence that Chinese espionage has taken place from inside the building,” the spokesperson told Belgium’s De Morgen newspaper.
The Maltese government has also denied any evidence that China had used its embassy to the EU, known as a permanent representation, while conceding that it had outfitted the building with furniture “donated by the government of the People’s Republic of China to install, in line with the relevant security procedures, in the permanent representation, to which the government remains thankful.”
A Maltese embassy spokesperson said “the government confirms that the building housing the permanent representation has been the subject of internal and external audits and found the building to be in the clear. Moreover, 80 percent of the mentioned furniture has over the past two years been disposed of and replaced by new furniture procured from Malta.”
The case has nevertheless raised concerns about the ties between China and Malta, which has long been seen as a potential gateway for Chinese interests into Europe.
In 2014, Malta became the first European country to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government on its involvement in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China is building a five-story embassy in Malta on a 19,000m2, 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.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Belgium said the espionage claims were false.
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