China is demanding an explanation from the United States after a report in an Australian newspaper said Australian embassies, including the one in Beijing, were being used as part of a US-led spying operation.
The Sydney Morning Herald said on Thursday that the intelligence collection takes place in Australian embassies across Asia, as well as other diplomatic missions, without most Australian diplomats knowing about it.
“China is extremely concerned about this report and demands that the United States offers a clarification and explanation,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.
“We also demand that foreign embassies in China and their staff respect the Vienna Convention ... and other international treaties and not get involved in any activities which do not accord with their status or post and harm China’s security and interests,” she added.
China and Australia had a consensus to increase co-operation, and both viewed the other as a development opportunity, Hua said.
“We hope and expect that Australia can work hard with China in this regard.”
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade declined to comment, saying: “It is the long-standing practice of Australian governments not to comment on intelligence matters”.
China’s own security services are widely believed to run a sophisticated communications tapping and surveillance operation, at least domestically, though the government denies accusations it tries to hack into overseas computer networks.
China, a major trading partner in the midst of negotiations on a free-trade agreement with Australia, expressed concern this week after Australia’s newly elected government said it was upholding a ban on China’s Huawei Technologies from bidding for work on the country’s US$38 billion National Broadband Network.
The political uproar over alleged US eavesdropping on close European allies produced an unusual defence from the National Security Agency this week – NSA Director General Keith Alexander said it was the Europeans themselves who did the spying, and then handed the data to the Americans.
Alexander’s disclosure at a public congressional hearing marked yet another milestone in the NSA’s emergence from the shadows to defend its electronic surveillance mission in the wake of damaging revelations by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.