| 23 June 2024, Sunday |

Two US Navy sailors charged with spying for China

Two US Navy sailors in California have been arrested on charges of providing sensitive military information to China.

Jinchao Wei, 22, a naturalised US citizen, is accused of conspiring to send national defence information to a Chinese agent.

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, was arrested on charges of accepting money for sensitive photos and videos.

It is unclear if the same Chinese agent is alleged to have contacted the pair.

Both men were arrested on Wednesday in California, Mr Wei while on his way to work at Naval Base San Diego.

Prosecutors announced the charges during a news conference in San Diego on Thursday.

They said Mr Wei, who served as a machinist’s mate on the amphibious assault ship USS Essex, held a security clearance and had access to sensitive information about the ship.

He was allegedly approached by a Chinese agent in February 2022 while he was going through the process of becoming a US citizen.

The agent paid Mr Wei, who also goes by the name Patrick Wei, thousands of dollars for photographs, videos, technical manuals and blueprints of the ship, the indictment said.

Justice department officials said Mr Wei also gave the agent details of US Marines who were on a maritime training exercise.

“When a soldier or sailor chooses cash over country and hands over national defence information in an ultimate act of betrayal, we have to be ready to act,” said US Attorney Randy Grossman.

China, so far, has denied any knowledge of the alleged activity.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for China’s embassy in Washington, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying: “The US government and media have frequently hyped up cases of ‘espionage’ related to China.

“China firmly opposes the US side’s groundless slander and smear of China,” he added.

Mr Zhao, who also goes by the name Thomas Zhao, worked at Naval Base Ventura County near Los Angeles. In 2021 he was allegedly approached by a Chinese agent who posed as a researcher seeking information for investment decisions.

The agent paid Mr Zhao nearly $15,000 (£11,800) for photos and videos along with diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a US military base in Okinawa, Japan, authorities said.

If convicted, Mr Wei faces 20 years to life in prison, while the charges against Mr Zhao carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The two men were charged in separate cases.

Authorities characterised the alleged espionage as part of a concerted effort by China to obtain US military secrets.

A Chinese spy balloon that floated over the United States earlier this year strained relations between the two countries, although American authorities later said it did not collect any sensitive information.

“The Department of Justice will continue to use every tool in our arsenal to counter threats from China and to deter those who aid them in breaking our laws and threatening our national security,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen.

It was not clear if either Mr Wei or Mr Zhao had hired lawyers who could comment on their behalf.