SINGAPORE - Chinese cyber espionage linked to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is increasing, reports said, citing experts' warnings that Beijing is using the huge infrastructure project to spy on companies and countries as well as to damp down dissent.
China is alleged to have targeted Belarus, the Maldives, Cambodia, European foreign ministries and non-governmental organisations, the London-based Financial Times (FT) said, referring to a report by United States cyber security company FireEye.
"They appear to be interested in countries where there is a lot of money at stake for them or where policies are being created that would affect future projects," Ms Sandra Joyce, vice-president of FireEye, was quoted as saying.
Unveiled in 2013, the BRI aims to develop a network of land and sea links with South-east Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. It has already come under attack from critics, such as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has alleged that China has negotiated "lopsided" deals.
Tun Mahathir, who took power after an election win in May, will be in China on Friday (Aug 17) seeking to renegotiate and possibly cancel billions of dollars worth of Chinese-invested projects authorised by his predecessor Najib Razak.
Now, the BRI project could present a cyber threat as well, raising further questions about the bidding process and China's motives.
Ms Samantha Hoffman, a research consultant at IISS, a think-tank, was quoted by FT as saying that beyond monitoring mega-projects or information gathering, China likely wanted to use the data collected to damp down dissent.
"It's also about controlling debate and ideas where that has specific security and diplomatic consequences," she said.
FireEye also said on Wednesday (Aug 15) that Chinese state-sponsored hackers may be targeting companies and state agencies in Malaysia, as the South-east Asian country looks to review several major BRI-linked projects, Reuters reported.
FireEye said it had found indications that cyber espionage activities were increasing throughout South-east Asia, as China-based groups and others sought to gain information on BRI projects and deals.
Malaysia's recent political changes and its reassessment of China-backed projects put it at heightened risk of such activity, Ms Joyce told a media briefing.