US and Chinese flags are seen as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi  meet at the US Department of State May 23, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Washington CNN  — 

Two Chinese Embassy officials were “secretly expelled” by the US earlier this year after they entered a “sensitive” military base in Virginia, The New York Times reported Sunday, citing conversations with people with knowledge of the episode.

The Times said half a dozen people with knowledge of the expulsions said US officials believe “at least one of the Chinese officials, who were with their wives, was an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover.”

Officials at the Chinese Embassy “complained to State Department officials about the expulsions,” the Times reported, noting that the action comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China, “the world’s two largest economies and biggest strategic rivals.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday that the US accusations against the Chinese diplomatic personnel were “seriously contrary to the facts.”

“China has lodged solemn representations and protests to the US in this regard. We strongly urge the US to correct its mistakes, revoke relevant decisions and protect Chinese diplomats’ legitimate rights and interests,” Geng said.

The Times said that the September incident occurred at a base near Norfolk, Virginia, that includes Special Operations forces. The Chinese officials and their spouses drove a car up to an entry checkpoint where a guard, “realizing they did not have permission to enter, told them to go through the gate, turn around and exit the base, which is common procedure in such situations,” according to the Times. But the officials instead proceeded to drive further onto the base and were eventually stopped when fire trucks “blocked them,” the newspaper 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 US 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 Times, which noted it’s unclear what the foreign officials were trying to do on the base, said some US officials said “they believed it was to test the security at the installation” and that had the Chinese officials “made it onto the base without being stopped, the embassy could have dispatched a more senior intelligence officer to enter the base, the theory goes.”

In mid-October, the State Department unveiled new restrictions for Chinese diplomats, the Times said, which require them “to provide notice before meeting with local or state officials and with educational and research institutions.” The newspaper said that at the time, the department said the new policy was in response to strict new rules imposed on American diplomats in China, and two American officials told the Times that the new State Department rule “had been under consideration for a while” as a way to retaliate against China, “but episodes like the one at the base accelerated the rollout.”

China has not yet retaliated against the US for the expulsion of the two officials who entered the base, the Times said.

The newspaper said the State Department and the FBI, which oversees counterintelligence in the US, declined to comment, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to their request for comment.