BEIJING (AP) — China said Thursday that accusations against an alleged Chinese spy accused of attempting to steal trade secrets from American aviation and aerospace companies were "made out of thin air."
Yanjun Xu, an operative of China's Ministry of State Security, was charged Wednesday in Cincinnati, Ohio, after being extradited to the U.S. from Belgium.
Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang dismissed the allegations and called on the U.S. to deal with the matter "fairly in accordance with law" and ensure Xu's "legitimate rights and interests."
"The U.S. accusation is something made out of thin air," Lu told reporters at a daily news briefing.
The Justice Department has accused Xu of recruiting experts from major aerospace companies, including GE Aviation, and persuading them to travel to China under the guise that they would give a presentation at a university. The trips were actually attempts to obtain secrets, according to the allegations.
The indictment said Xu recruited a GE Aviation employee, who sent him a presentation in February that contained the company's proprietary information. Xu later asked the employee for specific technical information and then asked him to meet in Europe, where he wanted the worker to provide additional information from GE, according to court papers.
Xu was arrested after traveling to Belgium in April. U.S. federal authorities said it is the first time that a Chinese Ministry of State Security intelligence officer has been extradited to the United States for trial.
John Demers, the assistant attorney general in charge of national security, said the case was a "significant economic espionage matter" and the latest proof China is trying to steal information from American companies.
Benjamin Glassman, U.S. attorney for Ohio's southern district, said no military information was targeted, but any attempt by other countries to "grow companies at America's expense" is considered a threat to national security.
The case comes amid a brewing trade war sparked largely by U.S. accusations China coerces foreign companies into handing over technology in return for access to the Chinese market.
The two have also feuded over U.S. support for Taiwan, Chinese weapons purchases from Russia and China's territorial claims in the South China Sea — where the U.S. says a Chinese destroyer came aggressively close to a U.S. Navy ship late last month, forcing it to maneuver to prevent a collision.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also charged last week in a strongly worded speech that China was seeking through covert and overt means to interfere in the U.S. midterm elections and counter President Donald Trump's tough trade policies toward Beijing.
Trump has made similar accusations, although intelligence and homeland security experts said they didn't know of any Chinese influence operations akin to Russian activities during the 2016 presidential election.