Chinese man charged with US aviation 'espionage'

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General Electric jet engine plant in CincinnatiImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The indictment identifies GE Aviation as a target of the operation

The US justice department has announced charges of economic espionage against a suspected Chinese intelligence officer.

Officials say Yanjun Xu tried to steal trade secrets from US aviation and aerospace companies on behalf of China.

He was arrested in Belgium earlier this year and on Tuesday extradited to the US.

On Thursday, Beijing dismissed the espionage accusations against the official, saying there was no basis to the charges.

China said it hoped the US would safeguard the legal rights of the Chinese individual, a foreign ministry spokesman said at a regular news briefing.

A senior US justice department official said the case was "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," Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers added.

Prosecutors say Mr Xu is a senior officer with China's ministry of state security - which is responsible for counter-intelligence, foreign intelligence and political security.

He was detained in Belgium on 1 April at the request of the US. He was later indicted by an Ohio grand jury on four charges of conspiring to commit economic espionage and attempting to steal trade secrets.

The indictment was unsealed on Wednesday following the suspect's extradition.

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Prosecutors allege that from 2013 Mr Xu targeted leading aviation companies as well as industry experts to obtain "highly sensitive" technical information.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
GE Aviation produces thousands of commercial and military jet engines every year

They say he invited employees to travel to China for an "exchange of ideas" or under the guise of delivering university presentations.

Ohio-based aircraft engine giant GE Aviation was identified as one of the targets of the alleged operation.

Conspiracy and attempt to commit economic espionage carries a maximum US prison sentence of 15 years, and conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets can carry a 10-year term.

The charges come at a time of raised tension between the US and China.

The two countries have become embroiled in an escalating trade war and President Trump has accused Beijing of trying to meddle in the upcoming mid-term elections.

In a speech last week, US Vice-President Mike Pence accused Beijing of directing "its bureaucrats and businesses to obtain American intellectual property - the foundation of our economic leadership - by any means necessary".