BEIJING — Allegations in an Australian newspaper that the United States and its allies use embassies in Asian capitals as electronic-data collection hubs are triggering a new wave of outrage directed at Washington.
China’s government is ‘‘severely concerned about the reports and demands a clarification and explanation,’’ Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. Government officials in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand — all US allies — made similar statements.
‘‘Indonesia strongly protests the existence of a tapping facility in the US Embassy in Jakarta,’’ Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia said. ‘‘If it’s confirmed, such action is not only a breach of security, but also a serious violation of diplomatic norms and ethics, and certainly not in tune with the spirit of friendly relations between nations.’’
The Asian leaders were reacting to a report this week in the German magazine Der Spiegel and a Sydney Morning Herald article Thursday that named cities in which embassies are used for electronic surveillance by the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — a group of intelligence partners known as the ‘‘5-eyes.’’
The reports were based on a secret National Security Agency document that was leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden and first published by Der Spiegel. The Sydney newspaper, part of the Fairfax Media group, also included information provided by an unnamed former Australian intelligence officer.
Code-named STATEROOM, the program has disguised surveillance equipment in about 80 embassies and consulates worldwide, the Herald reported, concealing the equipment in roof maintenance sheds or as features of the building itself.
Nineteen of the diplomatic facilities are in Europe. The Asian embassies in question include those in Jakarta, Indonesia; Bangkok; Hanoi; Beijing; Dili, East Timor; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
Prime Minister Tony Abbot of Australia declined to talk in detail about the Herald report, but he told reporters, ‘‘Every Australian governmental agency, every Australian official at home and abroad operates in accordance with the law and that’s the assurance that I can give people at home and abroad.’’
In an interview with the Associated Press, Australian intelligence expert Desmond Ball said he had witnessed covert antennas in five of the embassies named in the Australian media report. But Ball, a professor with the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center, declined to specify which embassies.
Notably absent from the list of countries reportedly being surveilled by the program are the staunchest US allies in Asia: Japan and South Korea. This week, Japanese media reported that the NSA had asked the Japanese government in 2011 for permission to tap fiber-optic cables in Japan, which carries much traffic throughout East Asia, as a way to collect surveillance on China. But the Japanese government refused, citing legal hurdles and lack of manpower.
On Wednesday, in response to reports of US surveillance of European leaders, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called cybersecurity ‘‘a matter of sovereignty’’ and said China was taking steps to increase its security, as well as backing a United Nations proposal along with Russia to address such surveillance.
China’s state-run media have also roundly criticized the United States, with headlines boasting that the revelations would weaken US global influence. Commentators are accusing the United States of hypocrisy after years of criticizing Chinese cyberattacks, and demanding US apologies.
According to US security experts, Chinese cyberspies, including hackers affiliated with the Chinese military, have stolen industrial secrets for years and have penetrated powerful Washington institutions, including law firms, think tanks, news organizations, human rights groups, contractors, congressional offices, embassies, and federal agencies.
Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi of Malaysia said the reports were being taken seriously by the Malaysian government, which is trying to determine whether such intelligence gathering had taken place. ‘‘It is a sensitive issue since it involves several countries,’’ Hamidi said.
The opposition party criticized Malaysia’s government for being too ‘‘submissive’’ in its reaction to the United States.
Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanatabut, secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council, said his government would tell Washington that such surveillance is against Thai law and that Thai security agencies have been put on alert.
If asked, Paradorn said, Thailand would not cooperate with such US spying programs.