As Ottawa fosters closer economic ties with Beijing, the news that a Conservative MP exchanged flirtatious emails with a reporter from China's state-run news agency has raised questions about whether Chinese spies have developed relationships with Canadian officials.

Last week, a series of emails came to light that appeared to reveal a close friendship between Bob Dechert, MP for Ontario riding Mississauga-Erindale, and Shi Rong, a Canada-based reporter for China's state news agency, Xinhua.

In the emails, which Shi has said were distributed by her husband, Dechert tells her she is beautiful, encourages her to watch a Parliamentary vote on television so she can see him smile at her from the Commons floor, and asks if she was able to get enough information for a story about how Canadian banks responded to the global financial crisis.

Dechert issued a statement in which he acknowledged that the emails are "flirtatious," but said the relationship between the two is a friendship that "remained innocent and simply that -- a friendship."

But the controversy has led to speculation that Shi is really a spy who cultivated a relationship with Dechert, a parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, in order to gain access to sensitive government information.

Charles Burton, who has served at Canada's embassy in Beijing on two separate diplomatic postings and has worked as a consultant for the federal government on Chinese affairs, said "certainly a lot of circumstances point to something irregular about this."

Communication between the two appears to have been started after Dechert accompanied Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a December 2009 trip to China, when he would have come to the attention of Chinese officials who may have been on the lookout for a Canadian target, Burton said.

Shi also appears to have written little for Xinhua, which suggests reporting is not her primary function in Canada. And Dechert's queries about her article on Canadian banks raises the question of whether he helped her gain access to the executives interviewed for the story.

"So you put it all together and a lot of questions are raised," Burton told in a telephone interview. "Questions which should be looked into by the RCMP in an investigation that I imagine Mr. Dechert would welcome because it would clear his name if in fact there's nothing there that the government should be concerned about."

For his part, Baird dismissed the controversy, saying he still trusts the junior minister to continue in his job. Baird has since refused to make further comment on the story.

While opposition MPs have so far declined to call for Dechert to step down from his post, they have questioned his judgment in developing a relationship with a representative from China's state-controlled news agency.

"We all knew that particular paper was basically a front for the Chinese government, both as a propaganda tool but also as an espionage tool they use periodically," NDP justice critic Joe Comartin told The Canadian Press. "That was pretty well known."

Burton agreed, saying that as a diplomat who has served in China, he was briefed by a security officer from the Department of Foreign Affairs to be wary of being approached by representatives of Xinhua.

Parliamentarians and parliamentary secretaries must be receiving the same briefings, he said.

"When entrusted with classified documents and in a position of influence, there are certain classes of people that you cannot have close personal friendships with, and I would put correspondents for the Xinhua news agency right up at the top of that list," Burton said. "It just wouldn't be a good idea to develop a personal relationship with someone who is the agent of a foreign power."

Angry spouse exposes emails

According to Burton, Dechert fits the profile of a prime espionage target, according to how the Chinese intelligence apparatus is known to work. An agent will identify a middle-level minister who has influence and access, but is not among the upper tier of ministers or senior officials who are too well-protected from falling prey to subversion.

An agent will cultivate his or her source over a long period of time in the hope that he or she gains access to ever more sensitive information. As the relationship deepens, the target may be encouraged to seek jobs that give the agent better contacts. And targets likely don't even realize they are being duped until it's too late.

"The kind of thing we are speculating Mr. Dechert was involved in is certainly something that one has seen over and over and over again, not just with China, but in the Cold War with the Russians and so on," Burton said.

What's troubling to Burton is that the Dechert emails were revealed by an apparently angry spouse and not via a security check or investigation by the RCMP. Dechert's security clearance was renewed in March after he passed a routine round of security checks.

But the incident does not come as a complete surprise. Canada's spy chief recently warned that Canadian politicians, civil servants and other groups are susceptible to "threats, coercion or potential blackmail."

Dick Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said Canada is a target for "foreign interference" due to natural resources, technological and scientific innovation and close relations with world powers.

Fadden has not singled out China in his reports on foreign spying, but he has not denied media suggestions that it is among the nations he is referring to.

There are also ongoing concerns about cyber attacks, particularly in the wake of attempts earlier this year to crack the networks of both the Treasury Board and the Finance Department. Those incidents are suspected to be the work of Chinese hackers.

Closer ties, greater vigilance

After years of chilly relations with China, the Harper government has been seeking closer ties with the nation's communist government in an effort to entice investment and boost trade.

In July, Baird visited China and hailed the two countries' close relationship, which includes a 57-per-cent boost in trade over the past five-and-a-half years. Baird noted that China is Canada's second-largest trading partner, with $14 billion worth of Chinese investment in Canada.

While closer ties with China allow Canada to diversify its trade markets and decrease dependence on a shaky U.S. economy, Burton said the government must still be wary of the threat of spying.

"It's normal that foreign states will try and engage in espionage activities to further their state goals. It's incumbent on us to take measures to try and counter these things, so that the Canadian national interest is not harmed," he said.

Burton said Beijing is known to be involved in the theft of intellectual property, military secrets, financial data and other information that it deems useful for advancing business, and therefore government, interests.

Allowing the Chinese or others to gain access to sensitive information could have devastating consequences on Canada's relationship with the United States, and with NATO allies.

Countering Chinese espionage would require a significant financial investment at a time when the federal government is warning of belt-tightening amid the ongoing economic recovery. Greater resources must be allocated to the RCMP and other agencies to monitor Chinese intelligence activities in Canada. This includes staff that speak the language, who can sift through reams of intelligence.

"If Canada is seen as a more-or-less open field for Chinese espionage because we're not doing anything about it, basically it's like leaving the doors unlocked kind of thing," Burton said.