This indictment unsealed by the U.S. Justice Department de-hazes to some extent the stance the Trump Administration has taken vis-a-vis China and its accusations of violating U.S. intellectual property.
A U.S. indictment unsealed on Tuesday reveals that intelligence officers from China had used hackers and company insiders to break into computer systems of private U.S. companies to steal information on a turbo fan engine that is used in commercial jetliners.
The indictment states, at the time of the hacks, a Chinese-state owned aerospace company was working to develop a comparable engine for use in aircraft manufactured in China and in other countries.
Incidentally, Chinese-manufactured jets, including the ARJ21 and the C919, currently use foreign engines; China has been trying hard to develop a homegrown alternative.
So far, ten people have been charged with conspiring to steal sensitive data “that could be used by Chinese entities to build the same or similar engine without incurring substantial research and development expenses,” reads the indictment released by the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to the Justice Department, computer systems that have been compromised included those of a French firm that was co-developing a turbofan jet engine with a U.S. company.
France’s only civil turbofan engine maker, Safran SA, co-develops engines with U.S.-based General Electric Co (GE) through their longstanding CFM International partnership. The partnerhip’s latest engine, known as LEAP, powers the largest category of Airbus SE and Boeing Co jets and includes a version for China’s new passenger plane, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) C919.
A Safran spokesman in China declined to comment and the company’s French head office could not be contacted outside normal business hours.
GE declined to comment.
The indictment charges Zha Rong and Chai Meng along with other co-conspirators who worked for the Jiangsu Province Ministry of State Security, a unit of the foreign intelligence arm of the Ministry of State Security.
The indictment states, their efforts to steal sensitive commercial aviation and other data took place from January 2010 through May 2015.
The release of the indictment is the third major corporate espionage-related case involving Chinese intelligence officers that was placed in the public domain by the Justice Department since September 2018.
In late September 2018, a Chinese national who had enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve was arrested in Chicago for working for Chinese intelligence to recruit engineers and scientists, including some who worked for U.S. defense contractors.
Earlier in October, the Justice Department announced that it had arrested a spy for China’s Ministry of State Security on charges of economic espionage and attempting to steal trade secrets from several U.S. aviation and aerospace companies.
This case has become a key piece in a puzzle with the FBI saying, the extradition of the Chinese operative Xu Yanjun from Belgium highlights the extent the Chinese government directly controls economic espionage in the United States.
“This is just the beginning,” said John Demers, who heads the Justice Department’s National Security Division, “Together with our federal partners, we will redouble our efforts to safeguard America’s ingenuity and investment.”