SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The case of a Singaporean caught spying for China in the United States has reawakened fears over China recruiting intelligence assets on an island state which has won trust among Western governments while keeping on good terms with Beijing.
Jun Wei Yeo, a 39-year-old academic who also goes by the name Dickson Yeo, pleaded guilty in a U.S. court on Friday to acting as an illegal agent of Chinese intelligence. He will be sentenced in October and faces up to 10 years in prison.
Singapore’s home ministry said in a brief statement on Sunday that it had been aware of Yeo’s case since his arrest by U.S. authorities in November, and he is receiving consular assistance.
Court documents show Yeo was lured into becoming a Chinese asset four years earlier while attending a forum in Beijing to give a presentation on Southeast Asian politics. He moved to the United States in January, 2019.
“One fool like this can get all Singaporeans suspected,” academic and former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan said in a Facebook post in response to the spy’s case.
Initially claiming to represent China-based think tanks, Yeo’s recruiters offered to pay him for political reports and information, but he learned later that some of his contacts were intelligence agents, the court records show.
Tasked with finding people with non-public information about politics, economics, and diplomacy, Yeo first focused on Southeast Asia, before switching to the United States.
When he moved to the United States his handlers gave him a bank card and told him to communicate with them using multiple phones to avoid detection.
Using a fake consultancy and business networking site LinkedIn, Yeo reached out to individuals, targeting those with financial or work troubles, and paid them to write reports.
Among those he lured was a civilian with high level security clearance working on a U.S. military fighter jet programme.
Yeo’s former PhD supervisor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy was an ethnic Chinese U.S. citizen, who was accused by Singaporean authorities in 2017 of being an agent of foreign influence for an undisclosed country.
Huang Jing denied those allegations, and while never convicted he had his residency pass revoked.
Now working in Beijing, Huang said he was shocked and glad Yeo had been caught, noting that he had an “obvious sense of insecurity and hunger for being somebody”.
Two former classmates said that Yeo had dreamed of becoming a diplomat but felt he had been shunned by the Singapore establishment. Yeo could not be reached for comment.
The home ministry said investigations into Yeo “had not revealed any direct threat” to Singapore.
While Yeo may have drawn the line at betraying his own country, he was caught spying against the superpower with whom Singapore has the closest security ties, though the city-state is bound by its own rules to pursue a neutral foreign policy.
At loggerheads with the United States over trade and other issues, Beijing denied knowledge of Yeo’s case on Monday and accused the United States of using espionage claims to smear China.
Deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations hit a new low during the past week, as the United States closed China’s consulate in Houston and China retaliated by seizing the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
Yeo’s case reinforced concerns raised in Western security think-tanks that Singapore was a soft target for China to recruit well-educated ethnic Chinese assets whose passports grant them easy access to countries almost everywhere.
“People might be more suspicious of Singaporeans if there is a perception that Singapore is compromised,” said Chong Ja Ian, a visiting Singapore scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in Cambridge, Mass.. Chong said the incident may also make it more difficult for Singapore to walk the diplomatic tightrope between Washington and Beijing.
Often described as the Switzerland of Asia because of its wealth, international finance network and neutrality, Singapore is one of the most politically stable countries in a region where the United States and China have competing interests.
China is Singapore’s biggest trading partner, as it is for many countries in Asia.
A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2018 found Singapore universities had among the highest level of collaboration globally with researchers from the China’s People Liberation Army (PLA).
And U.S.-based think tank Jamestown Foundation last year said that China used business associations and other organisations in Singapore to spread propaganda about a “greater China” identity among Singaporeans, 75% of whom are ethnic Chinese.
Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore’s department of political science, said the city-state’s openness and strategic location has made it a hub for many countries to “acquire intel” and “agents of influence”.
Yeo was “definitely not an isolated case,” he said.
A Mexican researcher from another Singapore university, Duke-NUS, was arrested in the United States earlier this year for acting on behalf of Russia.
Reuters asked the home ministry for comment on whether Yeo was an isolated case and, among other questions, whether there would be any restrictions on academics coming from, or visiting China.
The ministry said it would not be commenting further.
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