Washington (CNN) China and the US are set to take action against each other as tensions escalate over trade, cyber hacking and espionage as US senior law enforcement officials identified Beijing as the most serious threat to US national security on Wednesday.
China’s methods of non-traditional espionage — including their use of ordinary Chinese expatriates instead of spies at universities and businesses, and intellectual property theft — were explained by officials from the FBI and departments of Justice and Homeland Security who briefed US lawmakers.
Those disclosures come a day after President Donald Trump told Reuters he would be willing to use a Chinese tech executive arrested for violating US sanctions on Iran as a bargaining chip in his trade war with Beijing, which for now is in a 90-day pause.
The Trump administration has insisted that trade talks are on a separate track from renewed strikes against China to halt cyber espionage practices and intellectual property theft.
On Tuesday, Trump said the United States and China were having “very productive conversations” shortly after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Robert Lighthizer, the country’s top trade negotiator and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He spoke by phone for the first time following a presidential dinner on Dec. 1.
The Justice Department’s top national security official told lawmakers on Wednesday the administration is reacting to China’s “steadily increasing” economic espionage activity, which costs the US an estimated $225 billion a year.
From 2011 to 2018, more than 90% of the DOJ’s cases alleging economic espionage by a state have involved China, and more than two-thirds of trade secret thefts have a nexus to China, Assistant Attorney General John Demers said.
Beijing’s espionage focus is clear, Demers said, pointing to a 10-year strategic plan China published in 2015 that outlined 10 advanced technology industries for development.
Businesses that refuse to meet a party request that might contravene US laws “risk being shut down,” Priestap said.
China views members of its diaspora in the US including students and technology company executives as “being beholden to them,” Priestap said.
“We also need to be looking at activity that’s perfectly legal, but may pose a national security threat,” Demers told the committee, saying it may require legislation and should include measures to counter theft of US intellectual property outside the US by non-Americans.
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