By Gordon Lubold, Warren P. Strobel and Michael R. Gordon
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. quietly expelled two Chinese Embassy officials on suspicions of espionage after they improperly drove onto a sensitive U.S. military facility in Virginia in September, two U.S. officials familiar with the matter said.
The incident highlights what U.S. officials have said is Beijing's increasingly aggressive intelligence-gathering operations against the U.S., which have heightened tensions between the two economic superpowers even as they try to reach accord on trade and other issues.
The expulsion of the officials, whose names couldn't be learned, took place as President Trump was trying to reach a broad trade agreement with China, and while he was under pressure to take a more forceful stance backing student protesters in Hong Kong.
Neither side has publicly acknowledged the incident, which was earlier reported by the New York Times. It is believed to be the first time the U.S. has expelled Chinese diplomats for suspected espionage in more than 30 years.
The incident in September occurred at a sensitive installation in the Norfolk, Va., area, those familiar with the episode said. The two officials from the Chinese Embassy in Washington tried to gain access to the base but were turned away, one U.S. official said. Nonetheless, they drove about a mile onto the base before they were stopped and detained, U.S. officials said.
The Times reported that the group, which included the officials' wives, attempted to evade military personnel who pursued them and stopped only after firetrucks blocked their way. The Chinese officials then claimed they hadn't understood the guards' English instructions.
It isn't clear which U.S. military installation was breached. The Norfolk area has numerous military sites, including several that house Special Operations forces, including Navy SEALs.
The activity by the Chinese officials seems an unlikely way to gather secret intelligence. Rather, it may have been a way to test the base's security, or to send a psychological signal to the Americans that Beijing intends to become more aggressive in its espionage.
The Chinese Embassy didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is responsible for tracking foreign diplomats and stopping foreign espionage inside the U.S., declined to comment. The State Department declined to comment.
"We take the security of all our installations very seriously. We don't have any information to provide about the alleged incident," a Pentagon spokesman said. "We refer you to the Department of State for questions about Chinese diplomats."
Washington and Beijing are trying to compete and cooperate simultaneously in different arenas. The U.S. and China last week agreed to a so-called phase-one trade deal after months of tense negotiations.
The State Department in October imposed new restrictions on Chinese diplomats in the U.S., requiring that they notify the department before any meetings they have with state and local officials, or with educational and research institutions.
The new measures were primarily a response to even more stringent controls that China had placed on U.S. diplomats. But, one of the officials said, the incident in the Norfolk area was one factor that American policy makers discussed before imposing the new restrictions.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com, Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com and Michael R. Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 15, 2019 19:11 ET (00:11 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.