ISS: Threat posed by Chinese intelligence to Estonia a daily reality

  • 2021-04-12
  • BNS/TBT Staff

TALLINN - As a member of the EU and NATO, the threat posed by Chinese intelligence to Estonia is a daily reality, which is illustrated by two criminal cases, one of which has already been resolved in court while a judgement is soon to be delivered in the second case, it is said in the latest annual review of the Estonian Internal Security Services (ISS).

The COVID-19 outbreak in China may have affected that country's intelligence activities more than Russia's, according to the ISS. Restrictions on movement and strict codes of conduct for civil servants, both at home and in missions around the world, severely hampered the activities of Chinese intelligence officers.

"At the same time, the reported arrest of Chinese intelligence agents in Poland and Germany, for example, as well as numerous cases in the United States, confirm that Beijing's intelligence activities are not expected to subside in the near future. As a member of the EU and NATO, the threat posed by Chinese intelligence to Estonia is also a daily reality. We see this as a growing threat," the annual review reads.

Intelligence activity is part of China's quest to become a world leader, including in economic and technological terms, the ISS said. As an example of its high ambitions, in the current five-year plan China has set itself the goal of achieving independence from Western technology by 2025.

"Step by step, Beijing is seeking to assert itself in Europe in the fields of politics, the economy and technology procurement. This must also be taken into account by Estonia, both in its cooperation with the People's Republic of China and in attracting Chinese capital investment. Since 2017, the Chinese government has obliged all its citizens, companies and organizations to cooperate fully with the country's intelligence agencies if required, and to keep this cooperation secret. Thus, if an Estonian company plans to look for cooperation partners in China, the interests of the Chinese state are included in the package," the ISS said.

Following last year's detention, a criminal case in ISS proceedings where the accused acted in the interests of the Chinese state reached court for the first time in early 2021.

Through a mediator, Tarmo Kouts, a long-term employee of an Estonian university, had established a relationship with the Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China. Although Chinese military intelligence officers originally appeared to be employees of a Chinese think-tank, their true face and involvement in intelligence became apparent quite quickly. Kouts met Chinese military intelligence representatives in various Asian countries. 

The researcher's professional work was related to the defense field, which is why he had also been granted access to state secrets. He was ready to talk to Chinese military intelligence about his research, but when detained he had not been able to disclose any state secrets. In return for useful information, the researcher received cash and paid foreign trips to Asia, accommodation in expensive hotels and banquets in Michelin-starred restaurants, among other things.

The ISS said that the long-term goal of Chinese intelligence was to gain access to secret information, but the security police managed to prevent the leak of state secrets by taking timely action. Regarding the case, there is another person under custody charged with the same activities. Her case is pending at Harju County Court.

"This criminal case confirms that, as has been said in our previous yearbooks, intelligence services of hostile countries can target people of very different backgrounds, not just civil servants. The information that intelligence services seek is not necessarily state secrets. This case should raise vigilance levels among all researchers involved in excessively remunerated 'research collaboration' with think-tanks in China and elsewhere. Well-paid advisory services for institutions of uncertain background outside the EU and NATO are also a danger sign," the annual review reads.