(CNN) — A 27-year-old Chinese national was arrested in Chicago Tuesday for allegedly spying on behalf of Beijing, in the same week CIA director Gina Haspel warned against growing Chinese influence abroad.
Ji Chaoqun is accused of acting as an “illegal agent” at the direction of a “high-level intelligence officer” of a provincial department of the Ministry of State Security, China’s top espionage agency, the US Department of Justice said in a statement.
According to the complaint against Ji, he was tasked with identifying individuals for potential recruitment as Chinese spies, some of whom were working for US defense contractors.
A student of electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Ji also enlisted in the US Army Reserves under a program in which foreign nationals can be recruited if their skills are considered “vital to the national interest.”
Army intelligence “provided valuable assistance” in charging Ji, the statement said, adding that he could face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of acting as an illegal foreign agent.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday he was “unware of the situation” when asked about Ji’s arrest.
The arrest comes a day after CIA boss Haspel referenced China when she said her agency would focus more on nation state rivals after over a decade of counter-terrorism dominating its goals.
China is “working to diminish US influence in order to advance their own goals,” Haspel said in a speech at the University of Louisville on Monday.
Spy vs spy
Tensions between the US and China are ramping up amid an escalating trade war between the two nations and disagreements over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
This week, China refused to allow a US Navy warship to dock in Hong Kong, and strongly objected to the US approval of a $330 million arms deal with Taipei.
The amphibious US Navy warship the USS Wasp had been scheduled to make a port call in Hong Kong next month, according to two US officials. The arms deal covers spare parts and repairs for Taiwan’s military aircraft.
Even when relations between Washington and Beijing are more equanimous however, both nations have long targeted the other for espionage purposes.
In June, former CIA case officer Kevin Mallory was found guilty of transmitting secret and top secret documents to Chinese spies, in a case prosecutors warned was “no isolated incident.”
“The People’s Republic of China has made a sophisticated and concerted effort to steal our nation’s secrets,” John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said after Mallory’s conviction.
For its part, the US has also targeted China, recruiting spies and sources, but has faced a concerted counter espionage operation which reportedly “crippled” efforts for over a decade.
According to Foreign Policy, beginning in 2010, China “systematically dismantled the (CIA’s) network of agents across the country, executing dozens of suspected US spies,” due to security lapses in how handlers and sources communicated with each other.
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