Three espionage cases involving Chinese citizens stealing sensitive technology related information have been publicised.
Espionage is a craft that always plays out in the shadows well away from the limelight. When intelligence officers are discovered or caught, they are normally placed under surveillance to uncover their network of assets or their governments are quietly asked to recall them. Otherwise, depending on how strained bilateral relations are, they are either declared persona non grata and expelled, or publicly identified and sent back. How cases of apprehended intelligence officers are handled is an accepted barometer of the state of bilateral relations of the countries concerned.
Accusations by Washington that China has stepped up cyber espionage and other efforts to steal advanced and high technology have become more frequent since Sino-US relations began deteriorating in April 2018. US Vice President Mike Pence also alluded to this in his speech earlier this month. Interestingly, in the months since then, three espionage cases involving Chinese citizens stealing sensitive information related to aviation, aero-engines and underwater marine technologies have been publicised.
The disclosure publicised by the New York Times on 10 October that Yanjun Xu, a Deputy Division Director of the Sixth Bureau of the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security under China’s Ministry of State Security (MoSS)—China’s foreign intelligence agency—was arrested in Belgium and brought to the United States to face espionage charges, is extremely rare. Yanjun Xu, reportedly operating under cover of the Jiangsu Science and Technology Promotion Association, was tasked to obtain technical information, including trade secrets, from aviation and aerospace companies in the United States and Europe. Yanjun Xu was arrested in Belgium on 1 April, after being lured there in the hopes of obtaining information about GE Aviation.
Enticing an intelligence officer abroad to another country and then extraditing him to stand trial requires considerable time, effort and money and is very unusual. This is the first time this has happened in Sino-US relations and clearly shows that the bilateral relationship has hit a new low. William Priestap, the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, was quoted as stating, “This unprecedented extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer exposes the Chinese government’s direct oversight of economic espionage against the United States.” John C. Demers, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, appeared to place it in the context of the ongoing tensions in Sino-US relations when he said, “This case is not an isolated incident. It is part of an overall economic policy of developing China at American expense. We cannot tolerate a nation’s stealing our firepower and the fruits of our brainpower.”
The revelation comes approximately four months after information became available that counter-espionage investigations, all leading back to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), are underway in 51 American states. Possibly linked was the arrest on 25 September, of Ji Chaoqun, a 27-year-old Chinese citizen living in Chicago for allegedly spying, including by helping with the recruitment of US engineers, defence contractors and scientists for intelligence services in China. The US Department of Justice revealed that Ji Chaoqun worked under the direction of a high-level intelligence officer in the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, a provincial department of China’s Ministry of State Security (MoSS).
Ji Chaoqun was tasked with providing the intelligence officer with biographical information on individuals for possible recruitment by the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security. The individuals included Chinese nationals who were working as engineers and scientists in the United States, some of whom were US defence contractors. According to the complaint, Ji Chaoqun arrived in the United States in 2013 to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 2016, he enlisted in the US Army Reserves as an E4 Specialist. The U.S. Army 902nd Military Intelligence Group is said to have provided valuable assistance in his arrest.
Another instance of an attempt to steal hi-technology from the US was disclosed by the US Department of Justice on 21 June 2018. It said that 41-year-old Shuren Qin, a Chinese national residing in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was arrested and charged that day with, among other violations, violating export laws by conspiring with employees of an entity affiliated with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to illegally export US origin goods to China. According to official documents, Shuren Qin was born in the PRC and became a lawful permanent resident of the United States in 2014. He operates several companies in China, which purport to import US and European goods with applications in underwater or marine technologies into China. Shuren Qin was charged with being in communication with and receiving taskings from entities affiliated with the PLA, including the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU), a Chinese military research institute, to obtain items used for anti-submarine warfare.
The latest disclosure certainly ups the ante and suggests that the Sino-US relationship faces more turbulent times ahead.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in theCabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.