Two Chinese Embassy officials were caught trespassing on a Virginia military base in late September and expelled from the country, a new report says.
The two Chinese officials and their wives reportedly drove onto a base housing special operations units in Norfolk, Va., even after guards told them to turn around, according to an exclusive New York Times report.
A guard reportedly permitted the Chinese officials to go through the base gate with the instruction to turn around and leave after they could not provide proof of authorization to be on base. The diplomats instead continued driving onto the base, in apparent disregard to the instructions.
The car reportedly fled from military personnel attempting to stop them and only came to a halt when fire trucks maneuvered to block them.
Once they were stopped, the Chinese officials claimed they did not understand the guard’s instructions and had become lost. U.S. officials did not believe the claims of an innocent error, or that their English was poor enough to account for the claimed confusion, the NYT report said.
U.S. officials who spoke of the incident instead believe the gate-running effort was a test of their responsiveness and the overall security of the military installation. Had the diplomats made it onto the base without any effort to stop them, U.S. officials theorized the Chinese embassy could have followed up with a second attempt by a more experienced intelligence officer.
The military base was not named, but several bases near Norfolk also house similar special operations units, including the Navy’s SEAL Team 6.
Six U.S. officials with apparent knowledge of the expulsion told the New York Times they believe at least one of the diplomats was actually an intelligence officer working with diplomatic cover.
The recent expulsion signifies the first time in more than 30 years that a Chinese diplomat has been suspected of spying. It is one incident among a pattern by Chinese officials in recent months where they have been reported showing up unannounced at sensitive research facilities and government buildings.
On Oct. 16, the State Department announced new restrictions on Chinese diplomatic activities in the U.S., requiring them to provide advance notice when meeting with state and local officials or visiting research institutions. At the time, State Department officials said the restrictions were a response to China’s own regulations on U.S. diplomats.
Two sources for the New York Times reportedly said the restrictions had been under consideration for some time, but the effort to break into a military base motivated U.S. officials to move forward with the decision.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Monday said the September expulsions were a “mistake,” CBS News reported.
Geng said accusations of spying ran “completely contrary to the facts” and urged the U.S. “to correct its mistake.” He also called on Washington to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese diplomats.”
The news of the diplomatic fallout and China’s calls for corrective action come amid talks of a first phase for a U.S. trade deal with China, wherein the two would agree to ease some sanctions.