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 country’s embassy opposite the European commission’s headquarters in Brussels.
A spokesman for Belgium’s homeland security service, the Veiligheid van de Staat, made the unusual disclosure about the existence of the inquiry after the French newspaper Le Monde reported on the suspected espionage by the Chinese state.
It was claimed that an investigation had been launched by the Belgian intelligence services after a tip-off from British agents that the Chinese were using Malta’s embassy as a “spy tower” to eavesdrop on EU institutions.
The claim centred on a “cooperation agreement” made in 2006 worth €300,000 to the Maltese government through which Beijing had donated furniture to the country’s newly purchased 13-storey embassy in Brussels.
It was suggested 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 by German prosecutors of an investigation into a former EU diplomat suspected of committing espionage on behalf of China.
A spokesman for the Veiligheid van de Staat 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 Dar Malta embassy building in 2007, and that caught our attention – without being alerted to it by any foreign service,” the spokesman told De Morgen newspaper. “But there has never been any evidence that Chinese espionage has taken place from inside the building.”
The Maltese government has also denied any evidence that China had used its embassy to the EU, known as a permanent representation, while conceding it had fitted 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 spokesman 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% of the mentioned furniture has over the past two years been disposed of and replaced by new furniture procured from Malta.”
As a precaution, televisions donated by the Chinese that could be connected to a power source were not installed and all the wooden furniture was scanned on arrival, one Maltese government source told the Times of 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 the Mediterranean island’s involvement in Beijing’s “belt and road” initiative, through which it is planning to invest in infrastructure in Asia, Europe and Africa.
In 2014, the Chinese state-owned firm Shanghai Electric Power spent €320m buying a 33% stake in the Maltese energy company Enemalta.
China is building a five-storey embassy in Malta on a 19,000 sq metre site 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.