China says US fabricated spy case 'out of thin air'

Sophia Yan
The US has extradited and charged an alleged Chinese spy for conspiring to steal trade secrets US companies including GE, which makes military jet engines including the F/A-18F Super Hornet for the uS Navy - REUTERS

China has rejected US espionage claims against a Chinese national arrested in Belgium and extradited to America as mere fabrications plucked “out of thin air,” adding further pressure between Beijing and Washington.

The US Department of Justice charged Xu Yanjun on Wednesday for conspiring and attempting to steal trade secrets from major US aviation and aerospace companies, including GE Aviation, a top jet engine supplier for US military aircraft.

Mr Xu, a director for China’s intelligence and security agency, appears to have been lured to Belgium as part of a dramatic global sting operation, according to the 16-page indictment. Mr Xu, who thought he would attend a meeting to receive proprietary information about jet fan blade designs, was instead arrested under a US warrant on April 1 and extradited this week to face charges in America.

“US aerospace companies invest decades of time and billions of dollars in research,” said Bill Glassman, an attorney for the US justice department. “In contrast, according to the indictment, a Chinese intelligence officer tried to acquire that same, hard-earned innovation through theft.”

Tensions between the US and China have heightened significantly amidst a trade war. The Trump administration has also accused China of implementing a military, economic and political campaign to undermine Washington and bolster Chinese influence – claims that China continues to deny as “unwarranted” and “ridiculous.”

Mr Xu’s case – the first time the US has extradited a suspected Chinese spy – indicates the US is unlikely to back down on China anytime soon. For years, the US has indicted in absentia alleged Chinese spies amid growing allegations and evidence that Beijing has been using espionage and hacking to modernize its country.

“This unprecedented extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer exposes the Chinese government’s direct oversight of economic espionage against the United States,” said Bill Priestap, an assistant director with the FBI.

Still, it’s a long road ahead for future cases and when it comes to China, there is “zero” chance Beijing will ever allow extradition of its citizens from its own soil, said Scott Harold, Asia Pacific policy director at nonprofit think tank RAND Corp. The US and China don't have an extradition treaty, and Chinese authorities generally always deny allegations of spying and hacking as it did again on Thursday.

US officials insist such activity, however, is rampant and damaging to American security interests. Mr Xu, for instance, invited US engineers and experts at key companies on all expenses paid trips to present talks in China, asking them to meet local scientists and to bring specific documents with them. 

Such technical experts are often targets for Chinese hacking and spying given their proximity to proprietary information, and Mr Xu’s activities should not come as a surprise. “In a world where everything is connected … you can be hacked; it can be stolen,” said Mr Harold.

“This case is not an isolated incident. It is part of an overall economic policy of developing China at American expense,” said John Demers, a US justice department assistant attorney general. “We cannot tolerate a nation’s stealing our firepower and the fruits of our brainpower.”

Another Chinese national was arrested last month for allegedly providing information about American defence contractor employees in efforts to recruit them as informants.