WASHINGTON— The U.S. indictment of Chinese army officers on charges that they spied on American industries reveals a basic disagreement about what the two nations consider as their legitimate national security interests. That disagreement is affecting relations between Washington and Beijing.
Steelworkers rallied in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the indictments were issued. "Save our...steel jobs! Save our...steel jobs!" they chanted.
The indictments accuse Chinese spies of hacking into the U.S. Steel Corporation's computers to learn how to make steel more cheaply, driving down world steel prices and company profits. U.S. Steel has cut production and laid off workers.
"It's not been a level playing field for quite some time, and we're seeing why," said one steelworker at a Pittsburgh rally.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei angrily dismissed the charges. "The U.S.' move once again shows the domineering attitude and hypocrisy of the U.S. China has urged the U.S. to correct its mistakes and remove the so-called charges," he said.
While the U.S. government is reported to have spied on foreign companies, it has not done so for economic gain, said Ben FitzGerald, at the Center for a New American Security.
"We use it for national security, to do counterterrorism or for state-on-state-related intelligence questions, so that our diplomats are better prepared, so that our military professionals know what's coming, as opposed to trying to help our businesses succeed," said FitzGerald. "That's just not part of our conception of how business is done."
China sees economic gain, however, as a part of its national security interests.
"They have a much closer relationship between the health of their economy and their businesses and their national security. Whereas, in a U.S. and often a European context, we see those as separate activities," said FitzGerald.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have discussed the industrial espionage issue repeatedly, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"This is an issue that has been brought up by President Obama with President Xi in their meetings as recently as in March, as a general problem that we have seen and reflects the president's overall concern about cyber security," said Carney.
The indictments also are a sign, though, that the dialogue isn't working, according to FitzGerald.
"This is really a result of a breakdown in communication between China and the U.S., or a lack of Chinese involvement in taking this problem seriously in closed-door conversations," he said. "So now the administration has chosen to make this a public dialogue rather than a private one."
But so far, the public dialogue has not led to any agreement on the issue.