Obama switches hotels amid fears of Chinese spying

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Sep 13, 2015 22:00 IST
By switching hotels, Obama will break a decades-old tradition of US presidents. (Reuters)

When in New York for the coming UN general assembly meetings, President Barack Obama will break a decades-long tradition of US presidents staying at Waldorf-Astoria, owned by a Chinese company.

He will instead stay at New York Palace, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi stayed during his September 2014 visit to the Big Apple.

Top government sources said a number of hotels, including Waldorf-Astoria, are being considered for the prime minister’s stay and that a final decision has not been taken yet. From all available accounts, Modi’s last stay at the Palace went off quite well.

But the US is said to have dumped Waldorf-Astoria, a luxury hotel and a New York landmark, because of security concerns about its new owners -- China’s Anbang Insurance Group.

It brings up, in American minds, concerns about hackings of US businesses and facilities, including recent snooping in federal government’s database of employees, traced to China.

Hilton hotels, the then owner, sold Waldorf-Astoria to the Chinese company for $1.9 billion in 2014, handing over total control of the hotel for the next 100 years.

Under the terms of the sale, the new management can carry out major innovations, which, according to reports, have raised fears of the Chinese installing devices to spy on guests.

Obama’s New York visit has not been announced yet but his spokesperson Josh Earnest confirmed on Friday the US President will not be staying at Waldorf-Astoria this time. When asked why, Earnest said a number of factors go into the selection of accommodation for the President and they include “available space to cost and to security”.

When asked if there were concerns that the “Chinese might surveil or otherwise try to spy on the American delegation”, Earnest said he will not discuss security issues.

Reports of US shunning Waldorf-Astoria over Chinese spying fears has made some Indian officials ask if it’s not good enough for Obama, is it good enough for Modi.

Modi arrives in New York on September 23 and will stay at until September 26, when he leaves for the Silicon Valley. He will return on September 28 for a meeting with Obama, and then leave for home. Neither side has announced the venue for the meeting yet but it’s unlikely to be Waldorf-Astoria.

The Palace? Possible. It had turned into a fortress last September with leaders of the world’s two countries badly affected by terrorism staying there at the same time.

That would be Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An Indian official had then said, “With these two leaders staying here in the same hotel, this is the safest place in the world.”

Now, if there is any substance in American fears about Waldorf-Astoria, Indians would be worried too as it has been as much a victim of Chinese cyber-espionage and hackings as the US.

A US cyber security firm on Friday released data stating that one Chinese group had hacked at least 70 Indian institutions in recent years.

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