The Department of Justice announced on Wednesday that a Chinese intelligence operative has been arrested and brought to the United States to face charges for attempts to steal trade secrets from aircraft engine maker GE Aviation.
Federal prosecutors said that Yanjun Xu was arrested in Belgium in April following a meeting with an engineer who work for the Ohio-based firm.
CNN said that Xu faces four charges of conspiring and attempting to commit espionage and theft of trade secrets.
The indictment marks the first time that an operative of the Chinese Ministry of State Security has been extradited to the United States to face charges.
Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said that this also exposes China’s direct oversight of economic espionage against the United States.
Starting December 2013, Xu allegedly targeted experts who work for aeronautics companies inside and outside the United States. The aim was to get them to inadvertently reveal sensitive trade secrets to the Chinese government.
Xu then recruited these experts to travel to China usually under the guise of asking them to deliver a university presentation.
Investigators said that Xu targeted the closely-guarded secrets of how GE Aviation builds and tests jet engine fan blades from composite materials, a method that gives the company a powerful competitive advantage.
Citing charges that were unsealed on Wednesday, NBC News said that a GE Aviation engineer agreed to travel to China in 2017, where he gave a presentation at the state-run Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which has significant influence on China’s aerospace industry.
The engineer brought with him to the presentation five corporate documents on his personal laptop.
The court documents say that Xu later asked the engineer if he could “dump” materials from his laptop to a thumb drive when they meet in Belgium on April 1.
Xu was arrested on that same day and charged by a grand jury in Ohio. The United States then sought for his extradition.
“If not the first, this is an exceptionally rare achievement — that you’re able to catch an espionage operative and have them extradited to the United States,” John Carlin, a former assistant attorney general for national security told the Washington Post. “It significantly raises the stakes for China and is a part of the deterrence program that some people thought would never be possible.”
A spokesman for GE said that the impact was minimal because of “early detection.”