The Malta Independent 25 October 2020, Sunday

Building 'clear', government says, after report linking Dar Malta to possible Chinese espionage

Friday, 15 May 2020, 12:53 Last update: about 6 months ago

Reports in the foreign press linking the Maltese embassy to the EU to possible Chinese espionage are full of "incorrect allegations" and the building has been cleared in an internal audit, the government said. 

According to a report in Le Monde, the Belgian secret service is worried of the possibility of Dar Malta in Brussels harbouring technology installed by the Chinese secret service to spy on European institutions.

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Dar Malta sits at number 25, Rue Archimede - a prime spot in Brussels, just across the road from the European Commission building and a stone's throw away from the European Council.

It houses the Embassy of Malta in Belgium along with Malta's Permanent Representation to the European Union.

However, it's prime piece of real estate may, according to a piece written by well-known French journalist Jacques Follorou for Le Monde, have a motive beyond simple prestige.

Le Monde reports that since the beginning of the 2010s, "Belgian state security has accused this embassy of harbouring technical means installed by the Chinese secret services to spy on the European institutions; an activity that could, according to Belgian intelligence, still last today".

Richard Cachia Caruana, who was Malta's Ambassador to the EU, however has moved to dispell the claims, telling Times of Malta that they are "completely incorrect", while noting that all the necessary security scans had been carried out on anything that arrived in the embassy.

The French newspaper reports that the information was transmitted to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the then head of the kingdom's secret services Alain Winants.  Questioned by the paper however, both Winants and his successor Jaak Raes refused to speak about the case, while the Belgian Foreign Affairs Ministry replied that the contents of such notes shared between them and the secret services are "held to the strictest confidentiality".

Daniel Attard, spokesperson for the 'Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Equality in Malta' meanwhile told Le Monde that "Malta maintains a strong relationship with China, as with other countries, particularly in terms of cooperation."

It is in this context, he explained, "that in 2006-2007 an agreement signed between the Maltese finance minister and the Chinese government made it possible to completely renovate the Dar Malta embassy in Brussels", the French newspaper reported.

The spokesperson, the newspaper lamented, refrained from commenting on the accusations of Belgian intelligence and the use of the building by the Chinese, even if without the knowledge of Malta.

It should here be noted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Equality in and of itself never existed; it was previously known as the Ministry of EU Affairs and Equality, with these two portfolios then being split after Robert Abela took over as Prime Minister last January: The EU Affairs Ministry now lies in the hands of Evarist Bartolo, who is also responsible for Foreign Affairs in general, while the Equality portfolio is now part of the Justice Ministry in the hands of Edward Zammit Lewis.

Le Monde report that Belgian authorities were first alerted to the presence of Chinese secret services behind the walls of the embassy by British intelligence, noting that Chinese espionage in Belgium has since become so significant that the country's state security actually spoke out in 2019, stating how European institutions are amongst the priorities of Chinese intelligence services as they seek information on decisions, strategic plans, and political statements that may affect China.

This being said, the same newspaper reports that “the French authorities and the Commission assure, in private, that they have no recollection of complaints made by the Belgian secret services against the Embassy of Malta in Brussels.”

Dar Malta was, according to the newspaper, subject to works from 2007 onwards, three years after Malta joined the EU, when an agreement with China was reached for the entire renovation and purchase of the building for €21 million.

The newspaper reports that besides being in an upscale area, the building is significantly kitted out.

"The entire embassy is protected by surveillance cameras and electronic badge readers. Human presence detectors are installed everywhere, including in elevators and car parks. Each zone has a specific degree of security, and the central station is equipped with bullet-proof windows. Finally, thick shielding was welded to the party wall with the neighboring building", the article reads.

The newspaper notes that the diplomatic community in Brussels was "surprised" that a country of Malta's size prefers to buy a building rather than rent it, especially questioning why it was so important to settle right next to the European institutions - when in truth, the buildings of other, larger member states are located some distance away without hindering their work and with coming to a lower cost.

The newspaper notes that after coming to power in 2013, the Labour Party's government has tightened links with China in the fields of "energy, telecommunications, transport, tourism, and even sports", noting in particular that Malta was the first country where China imported its 5G technology.

 

Government statement

In a statement, the government said it had taken note of the report but clarified that renovation works carried out in 2007, under a different administration, on the site housing the Permanent Representation were carried out at the expense of the government of Malta thirteen years ago.

"It was only furniture which was 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," it said.

The government said the news article makes "various incorrect allegations" that such equipment is being used for illicit purposes.

"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% of the mentioned furniture has over the past two years been disposed of and replaced by new furniture procured from Malta."

It is also important to clarify that the Permanent Representation's security system has been overhauled and improved over the past two years, the government said.


 


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