Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘Mystery at a Swiss hotel: A US-China spy thriller in the Alps’ – Times of India

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NEW DELHI: The global contest between Beijing and Washington over military secrets is spilling into new and far-flung places, with a remote hotel in the Swiss Alps becoming the latest battleground.
Driving the news:
In the idyllic Swiss village of Unterbach, the Hotel Rössli, a century-old lodge in the Alpine village of Unterbach, has found itself at the center of a high-stakes espionage drama involving the world’s most advanced jet fighter, the F-35, a Wall Street Journal report said.
US and British national security officials have been claiming that the hotel’s quaint facade offered Beijing’s intelligence services an ideal watchpost on the front edge of the escalating spy war between America and China.
Xi Jinping’s intelligence agencies, US officials warned, were going to enormous lengths to acquire information about the supersonic jet, built to penetrate enemy airspace undetected.
Chinese family accused of spying at Swiss Hotel
As per the WSJ report, Last summer, Swiss federal police raided the Hotel Rössli, taking the Chinese owners, the Wang family, in for questioning.
The hotel is located about 100 yards from a Swiss air base that will host F-35 jets, with parts of the air base lacking secure fencing. Farmers occasionally lead their cows across the runway.
The Wangs, now in China, have emphatically denied that their lodge served anybody other than visitors to the hamlet of Unterbach, offering hiking trails and rides on a nearby funicular.
Switzerland, a historically neutral country eager to appease both superpowers, took more than a year to weigh the American allegations against the hotel.
Zoom in
US intelligence officials and diplomats based in Switzerland began repeatedly warning that Chinese intelligence personnel, based under diplomatic cover in the lakeside city of Geneva, were attempting to gain information on US F-35 jets, a senior US official serving at the time told the WSJ.
US officials responsible for aircraft sales traveled to Unterbach and made requests, including that screens be built around the runway. On the airport’s roof, hobbyist plane spotters would often show up, told by friends in the Swiss Air Force when combat planes were scheduled to fly. That was also a risk.
In 2023, the frustrated US ambassador sharpened his warnings. If the F-35 was meant to be based in Unterbach, then Unterbach had to be secure. Months passed without action.
Finally, late last summer, as backpack-clad hikers thronged the trails, a group of civilian policemen arrived midmorning at the Rössli. The elder Wangs were taken away in handcuffs, then fined $5,400 for mostly minor violations of Switzerland’s Hospitality Industry Act.
Why it matters
The strategic significance of inn’s location, just 100 yards from a Swiss military airbase, where several advanced F-35 fighter jets are set to be stationed, has drawn the attention of US and British intelligence, escalating tensions between major global powers over espionage and military security.
The raid on Hotel Rössli highlights a broader geopolitical struggle where global superpowers vie for technological and military supremacy.
The presence of F-35 jets, known for their stealth capabilities, makes the location extraordinarily sensitive, magnifying the implications of any potential espionage activities.
For China, neutral Switzerland was “the most important diplomatic destination in Europe during the years after China’s 1949 revolution”.
Moreover, several Chinese citizens deemed to be spies by Swiss authorities have been caught in recent years, most asked to quietly leave, Swiss intelligence experts say. They include one referred to in files as “Mr T”— a student at Zurich’s elite science university, ETH— who was paid in cash by the Chinese embassy in Bern.
Between the lines
The case mirrors the intricate dance of diplomacy and intelligence—a stark reminder of the persistent threats and suspicions that define international relations today.
Switzerland’s role, traditionally neutral, adds a layer of complexity, balancing international partnerships with its longstanding commitment to neutrality.
What’s next
The future of Hotel Rössli remains uncertain.
As the Swiss government deliberates over the US demands for heightened security around the airbase, the eventual fate of the hotel could signal Switzerland’s broader strategic alignments amidst growing global security tensions.
The Wangs, now in China, watch from afar as their former property remains a focal point in a potentially far-reaching espionage controversy.
The truth of whether the family was interested in the view from the hotel’s front, or its back, may never be known, the WSJ report said.
(With inputs from agencies)

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