On Wednesday, October 10, the U.S. Justice Department announced that a Chinese citizen indicted on espionage charges had been taken into custody in Belgium, and will soon be extradited to the United States to face trial.

“This unprecedented extradition of a Chinese intelligence officer exposes the Chinese government’s direct oversight of economic espionage against the United States,” said Bill Priestap, the FBI’s assistant director for counterintelligence.

Yanjun Xu, an officer within China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), has been charged with attempting to steal secrets pertaining to American military aircraft from a number of defense contractors. China has a long history of stealing aviation technology to bolster their military initiatives, primarily from Russia and the United States. Another Chinese national, Su Bin, is currently serving a 46-month sentence in federal prison for stealing the plans for Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, both of which are considered to be among the most advanced fighter platforms on the globe. Since then, China has began production on an F-22 copy, dubbed the J-20, with development still underway on the forthcoming J-31, a copy of the F-35.

Yanjun Xu’s extradition from Belgium marks the first time a spy with a formal affiliation with the Chinese government has ever been returned to the United States to stand trial, and the Justice Department’s announcement comes amid a period of heightened tensions between the United States and China. Trade disputes, exacerbated by military confrontations in the hotly contested South China Sea, have fueled a rapid decline in U.S./China relations. President Trump recently accused China of attempting to influence the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. Vice President Mike Pence soon followed up those allegations with more of his own, calling out China for the “wholesale theft of American technology.”

The indictment of Yanjun clearly supports the Vice President’s allegations, stating,

China’s policies on intellectual property include a focus on the “re-innovation” of foreign technology. Technological advancement, including in the aerospace industry, is state directed, and accomplished in part, by the acquisition of foreign technology through theft of industrial information.

The indictment does not specify the defense contractor Yanjun Xu managed to infiltrate but did state that it maintains offices in Ohio and that the technology stolen pertained to turbine fan blades and fan blade encasement systems. Based on that evidence, it seems likely that the company was General Electric’s military aviation arm.

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According to a source within the company that spoke with NEWSREP under the condition of anonymity, GE Aviation has spent years developing a turbine blade production methodology that boasts superior heat resistance and efficiency while weighing significantly less than conventional turbine blades. China has notably struggled to field efficient enough turbines to qualify their J-20 as a “truly” fifth-generation fighter. Existing J-20s must utilize their afterburners to maintain supersonic speeds, unlike America’s F-22 and F-35, significantly limiting the J-20’s range.

Further allegations content that Yanjun Xu and unnamed co-conspirators recruited and paid aviation experts to provide them with further information regarding ongoing military projects, including information considered “trade secrets.” These experts traveled to China under the guise of giving presentations at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA). According to the Department of Justice, one of Yanjun Xu’s un-named co-conspirators is believed to be “a Deputy Director at NUAA.”

“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,” said former assistant attorney general for national security, John Carlin. “It significantly raises the stakes for China and is a part of the deterrence program that some people thought would never be possible.”

The maximum penalty Yanjun Xu faces for conspiracy and attempted economic espionage is fifteen years in federal prison, with a possible addition of ten years for the conspiracy and attempt to steal trade secrets.