China warns that the US is severing its relationship by charging military officials with cyberspying to steal foreign trade secrets. China has also suspended cooperation in a joint cybersecurity task force.
A U.S. security firm, Mandiant, said last year it traced attacks on American and other companies to a military unit in Shanghai.
The charges are the biggest challenge to relations since a meeting last summer between President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Sunnylands, California.
Ties already were under strain due to conflicts over what Washington says are provocative Chinese moves to assert claims over disputed areas of the East and South China Seas. Beijing complains the Obama administration’s effort to shift foreign policy emphasis toward Asia and expand its military presence in the region is emboldening Japan and other neighbors and fueling tension.
Beijing has denied conducting commercial spying and said it is a victim of computer hacking, but has given little indication it investigates foreign complaints.
“The Chinese government and Chinese military as well as relevant personnel have never engaged and never participated in so-called cyber theft of trade secrets,” said a foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, at a news briefing. “What the United States should do now is withdraw its indictment.”
The Ministry of Defense warned that the U.S. accusations would chill gradually warming relations between the two militaries.
“The United States, by this action, betrays its commitment to building healthy, stable, reliable military-to-military relations and causes serious damage to mutual trust,” it said.
Despite the pointed language, damage to U.S.-Chinese relations is likely to be limited, with little change in trade or military links, because Beijing realizes the indictment of the five officers is symbolic, said Shen Dingli, a director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University. He has close ties to China’s foreign policy establishment.
Beijing is unlikely to engage in tit-for-tat retaliation such as issuing its own indictments of American soldiers and probably will go ahead with plans to take part in U.S.-hosted naval exercises next month, Shen said. He said cybersecurity cooperation is likely to be suspended indefinitely, but that should have little impact because the joint group achieved little in its three meetings.
“Political, security and commercial espionage will always happen,” Shen said. “The U.S. will keep spying on Chinese companies and leaders, so why can’t China do the same?”