WASHINGTON • The United States Justice Department says it has arrested and indicted "a spy for China's Ministry of State Security" on charges of economic espionage and attempting to steal trade secrets from several US aviation and aerospace companies.
Chinese operative Xu Yanjun was detained in Belgium in April after a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe and extradited to the US on Tuesday. The Washington Post reported that he was lured to Belgium by US agents.
The charges come as Washington steps up pressure on Beijing over its trade policies and alleged theft of US intellectual property.
Cyber-security experts said the arrest was another sign of the escalating trade tensions between the two countries, adding that they had seen increasing espionage by Beijing for business advantage.
"China is actively engaging in targeted and persistent intrusion attempts against multiple sectors of the economy, including biotech, defence, mining, pharmaceutical, professional services, transportation and more," said CrowdStrike chief technology officer Dmitri Alperovitch.
A US Department of Justice statement on Wednesday said Xu, a deputy division director for the State Security Department of China's Jiangsu province, targeted several US aerospace companies, including GE Aviation, a subsidiary of General Electric.
It described another unnamed company as "one of the world's largest aerospace firms, and a leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners and defence, space and security systems", and a third as a leader in unmanned aerial vehicle technology. GE Aviation has supplied engines for large Boeing and Airbus aircraft, and is working on a new generation of engines for commercial planes and heavy-lift military helicopters.
The indictment against Xu said he had targeted aviation firms since around December 2013. It also said he made contact with experts working for the firms and recruited them to travel to China, often for the initial purpose of delivering a university presentation, and paid their costs and a stipend.
"This unprecedented extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer exposes the Chinese government's direct oversight of economic espionage against the United States," the statement quoted Mr Bill Priestap, FBI's assistant director for counterintelligence, as saying.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang called the accusations a "pure fabrication".