The U.S. government covertly moved to expel two officials from the Chinese embassy earlier this year, after they drove onto a military base, the New York Times reported, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter.
The pair were then expelled from the United States - the first known expulsion of Chinese diplomats since 1987 and a move that was not announced by either Washington or Beijing, The Times said.
At least one of the diplomats was believed to be an intelligence officer operating under cover, the Times said.
China has not yet retaliated against the U.S. for the expulsion of the two officials who entered the base, the Times said. The two sides announced a mini-deal on Friday to reduce some tariffs.
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The paper cited sources briefed on the trespass who theorized that it was a test of the base's security and could be followed up by a team of more senior intelligence officers trying to enter the facility.
They instead continued driving into the base, evading military personnel - and only stopping when they were blocked by fire trucks, the paper said.
The Chinese officials said at the time "that they did not understand the guard's English instructions, and had simply gotten lost", the newspaper said, but U.S. officials told the Times "they were skeptical that the intruders made an innocent error and dismissed the idea that their English was insufficient to understand the initial order to leave".
The incident was not announced or made public by Washington or Beijing, and USA intelligence officials say China poses a bigger espionage threat than any other country right now. Neither the US nor China has publicly acknowledged the incident. The state department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the incident.
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Weeks after the incident at the Virginia base, the State Department placed restrictions on the activities of Chinese diplomats, in what it said was a response to years-old Chinese regulations limiting the movements of USA diplomats.
It is not clear if the restrictions were linked to the incident in Virginia.
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