Russia claims China spy arrest

AFP, 5 October 2011
By Dmitry Zaks

MOSCOW — Russia on Wednesday revealed holding a Chinese national for the past year on espionage charges linked to repair manuals for a missile system that Beijing had been buying from Moscow for years.

The rare public spy spat between the two giants emerged just days before a visit to China by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — a former intelligence agent who plans to return to the Kremlin for up to 12 more years in power in March.

China issued no comment while Russian officials stayed mum about why they kept the unusual case quiet since making the initial arrest on October 28 last year.

The FSB domestic security service said the case of Tong Shengyong was forwarded by prosecutors to the Moscow City Court on Tuesday.

“The investigation established that the Chinese national (was) working on assignment from the Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China,” FSB said in a statement.

It said Tong had posed as an interpreter for “official delegations” and tried to purchase data from Russian nationals. The espionage charge carries a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years.

The S-300 system is an older version of Russian surface-to-air missiles that Moscow has produced since the Soviet era and has since replaced with the more modern S-400.

Analysts said its last remaining secrets probably relate to its rare repair technology and spare parts — details that the Chinese suspect was allegedly looking into at the time of his arrest.

The S-300 purchase represented a small part of the decades-long history of ties with Russia that made China into one of its largest arms purchasers alongside India.

But Beijing has more recently launched the development of its own missile systems similar to those it used to acquire from Moscow.

The FSB disclosure came as Putin prepared for a Tuesday meeting in Beijing with counterpart Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao aimed at reaffirming the neighbours’ diplomatic and economic clout.

China and Russia have enjoyed close diplomatic and trade relations in the past decade while seeking to put behind them the border and other disputes that simmered in the Soviet era.

This week the two jointly vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syria crackdown and share a deep-seated suspicion of foreign interference in their internal affairs.

China’s growing reliance on its own weapons systems is one area hurting Russia directly as Moscow struggles to keep Soviet-era clients despite its waning list of modern technology.

The Chinese national was arrested several months after police in Saint Petersburg arrested two Russian rocket scientists on suspicion of trying to supply military secrets to Beijing.

Their case was submitted to a Saint Petersburg court for trial on September 5 but it remained unclear if it also involved the S-300s or had any other connection to the Moscow arrest.

Analysts said the year-long delay of the case’s disclosure and its link to an outdated weapon whose repairs were being conducted the world over seemed mystifying.

“This is not how it usually happens,” said Alexander Konovalov of the Institute of Strategic Assessment.

“If you link this to the China visit, you might say that this gives Putin a chance to go there, pardon him and release him” as a gesture of good will ahead of a new term in power, the analyst said.