A Singaporean man has pleaded guilty to working as a foreign agent for China in the US, as diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to escalate.
Jun Wei Yeo, also known as Dickson Yeo, pleaded guilty on Friday to using his political consultancy in the United States as a front to collect information for Chinese intelligence, the US Justice Department said.
Yeo said from 2015 to 2019, he worked for Chinese intelligence "to spot and assess Americans with access to valuable non-public information, including US military and government employees with high-level security clearances."
The plea comes as China ordered the closure of the US consulate in the south-western city of Chengdu on Friday.
The move is an escalation of a tit-for-tat exchange between the two countries after the US ordered China to close its consulate in Houston. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labelled the consulate “a hub of spying and intellectual property theft.”
Tensions between the US and China have plummeted since 2018, which started with a trade war.
It resulted in Washington and Beijing slapping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of their export goods, after the Trump administration accused China of unfair trading practices. Negotiations between the two sides are ongoing.
Their relationship has soured in the last year with issues arising over technology, the US blaming the COVID-19 pandemic on China, and Beijing's clampdown on Hong Kong's autonomy.
The US has also arrested four Chinese academics in recent weeks, charging them with lying on visa applications about their ties to the People's Liberation Army.
Who is Yeo?
According to the US, Yeo was recruited by Chinese intelligence while working as an academic at the National University of Singapore.
He had researched and wrote about China's "Belt and Road" initiative to expand its global commercial networks.
Yeo's LinkedIn page said he worked as a political risk analyst focused on China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, saying he was "bridging North America with Beijing, Tokyo and Southeast Asia."
The court filing said Yeo was directed by Chinese intelligence to open up a fake consultancy and offer jobs.
He allegedly received more than 400 resumes, 90 per cent of them were from US military or government personnel with security clearances.
Yeo was arrested as he flew to the US in 2019.
He was "using career networking sites and a false consulting firm to lure Americans who might be of interest to the Chinese government," said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in a statement.
"This is yet another example of the Chinese government's exploitation of the openness of American society," he said.