Belgian minister raises spy concerns about Chinese e-retail center at Liege airport

Liège Airport

BELGIUM’S MINISTER OF JUSTICE has raised espionage concerns about a new logistics hub that is under construction in eastern Belgium by a firm operating on behalf of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. The hub is currently being built on a lot adjacent to the Liège Airport, which is situated 25 miles southwest of the Dutch city of Maastricht.

Based in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, Alibaba is a multinational technology firm that specializes in e-commerce and e-retail. It is often described as the Chinese version of the American e-retail giant Amazon. Today it is among the world’s 10 wealthiest companies and among the 30 largest public firms in the world. In its effort to expand its area of operations beyond Asia, Alibaba recently announced the construction of six global logistics hubs, which will enable it to deliver products anywhere in the world within 72 hours.

Scheduled to become operational by the end of this year, the logistics center in Liège is part of that larger effort by Alibaba. When completed, the center will be operated by Cainiao, which is Alibaba’s logistics arm. When it was announced last year, the project was praised by Belgian officials in the state of Wallonia, where the hub will be based, as a great innovation that will create new jobs and other employment opportunities for local people.

But now Belgium’s Justice Minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, has expressed concerns about the project. Speaking last Thursday before the Belgian Federal Parliament’s Committee on Justice, Van Quickenborne was asked by a parliamentarian whether the Alibaba hub posed security concerns for the state. The minister responded saying that the placement of Chinese workers and logisticians at the hub could potentially be exploited by the Chinese government to plant intelligence operatives at the airport. Additionally, the logistics center could have access to commercial and personal data of Alibaba’s European customers, and could share them with Beijing, said Van Quickenborne.

The minister claimed that, like every other Chinese firm, Alibaba is obligated to “obey the Chinese security apparatus” and hire government spies as employees when asked to do so. He added that “this interest [by the Chinese state] is not limited to intelligence and security purposes but can be viewed within a broader political and economic framework”. Van Quickenborne concluded his remarks by saying that his ministry had been warned by the Surete de l’Etat —Belgium’s counterintelligence agency— of the security dangers embedded in China’s growing economic influence in the country.

On Friday a press statement issued by the embassy of China in Brussels decried Van Quickenborne’s comments as “baseless allegations” that harmed relations between Belgium and China. The statement added that, contrary to reports in the Western media, the Chinese state does not “demand Chinese enterprises to engage in activities that breach local laws or regulations”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 May 2021 | Permalink

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