SYDNEY — CIA double agents have become Chinese satellite dishes and Kremlin moles a Japanese infrared beam.
The world's new hotbed of espionage, front companies, and Aldrich Ames-style bribes are in Asia. The good old days of Soviet operatives and American informants are being overtaken by the bad new days of Chinese scientists and Japanese technicians.
''Intelligence spending in Asia doubled from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s,'' says Desmond Ball, an intelligence expert at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center in Canberra. ''Budgets are going up everywhere.''
Espionage activity is growing faster in Asia than in any other part of the world, according to Mr. Ball. The United States and Australia, for instance, got caught in May bugging the Chinese embassy in Canberra.
And spying in Asia is increasingly focused on economic intelligence. Instead of probing Soviet and Chinese nuclear-missile sites, spies are helping their countries gain bargaining positions in trade talks and assisting their businesses in contract negotiations.
President Clinton reportedly ordered the Central Intelligence Agency recently to make a top priority of spying on rivals involved in trade talks with the US. US trade representative Mickey Kantor reportedly used CIA information in this spring's auto trade talks with Japan
Analysts say the US spying on China in Australia illustrates how much intelligence gathering is changing in the post-cold-war era. The Australian government has not confirmed the allegations, but according to published reports, Australian intelligence agents and US operatives planted dozens of bugs in the new multimillion-dollar Chinese embassy that opened in Canberra in 1992.
The disclosures set off a firestorm of protest - not from the Chinese, but from Australian critics. According to published reports, disgruntled Australian agents said data picked up from the embassy was first being given the US National Security Agency for translation and analysis, and then was only passed on in part to Australian intelligence.
Why help a competitor?
Critics were furious that one of Australia's biggest economic competitors, the US, had access to secret trade talks held between Australian and Chinese officials in the embassy. China's markets, where US and Australian companies compete, has become the equivalent of missile technology. ''I don't think all of the [Australian] intelligence services are able to distinguish our needs from the needs of the US,'' says John Walker, an Australian defense analyst. ''It is an understatement to say the US is actively intruding in markets we are interested in.''
Another story was leaked that painted Australia as the victim of espionage throughout Asia and the world. Intelligence officials said listening devices or evidence of espionage were found in Australian embassies or residencies in at least nine countries - Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam, Turkey, rump Yugoslavia, Poland, China, Russia, and Brazil.
The most spectacular case involved the Japanese bugging of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. An infrared beam was being directed on a window in the embassy from 600 yards away to eavesdrop on conversations inside. Australian diplomats throughout East Asia were called home for a special security briefing.
Ball says that as Asian countries grow in economic power, intelligence budgets are being boosted and the vast majority of new spending involves ''signals intelligence'' - spookspeak for eavesdropping. Since the mid-1980s, Japan, China, India, and Australia have emerged as eavesdropping leaders in the region. In Southeast Asia, Australia has the most extensive signal intelligence system while Singapore has the most sophisticated, says Ball.
Activity in Australia, where the defense intelligence directorate has doubled in size from 1,000 to 2,000 people since 1981, is in some ways indicative of changes in the region. Australia opened a new eavesdropping station on its northern coast in 1988 to monitor Indonesian satellite traffic. A new $250 million station in western Australia opened in 1993 to track Chinese satellites. The new facility replaces a joint British-Australian listening post in Hong Kong that will be lost to China in 1997.
Japan has two ground monitoring stations on its northern islands, while China has two ground stations and three new Chinese-made ground monitoring stations in Burma.
Ball cautions that most of the intelligence being gathered in Asia still revolves around military and political issues. All China's neighbors are eagerly tracking its military. Insurgent movements, such as Indonesia's fight to maintain control of East Timor, also keep intelligence agencies busy.
Distrust of businesses
Some former intelligence officials, echoing some Clinton administration critics in the US, warn that Australian intelligence should not get involved in economic spying and would be ineffective at it. ''If you get information, which company do you give it to? Like any intelligence, how do you act on it without revealing its source and do you trust a company to not act so openly that they reveal the source,'' says the former Australian intelligence official.
Australian officials were caught flat-footed by the embassy incident. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has since touted the country's attempts to integrate more with Asia and vowed to reshape Australia's intelligence agencies to serve Australia's interests - not America's.
But Australian critics say the scandal shows that Australian intelligence, originally started as a branch of Britain's MI-6 in the 1950s, is still wedded to cold-war notions of intelligence.