Washington: An aggressive campaign by American authorities to root out Chinese espionage operations in the United States has snared a growing group of Chinese government officials, business people, and academics pursuing American secrets.

In 2019 alone, public records show US authorities arrested and expelled two Chinese diplomats who allegedly drove onto a military base in Virginia. They also caught and jailed former CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency officials on espionage charges linked to China.

On Thursday, US Attorney General William Barr, FBI director Christopher Wray and US counterintelligence chief William Evanina will address a Washington conference on US efforts to counter Chinese “economic malfeasance” involving espionage and the theft of US technological and scientific secrets.

China’s efforts to steal unclassified American technology, ranging from military secrets to medical research, have long been thought to be extensive and aggressive, but US officials only launched a broad effort to stop alleged Chinese espionage in the United States in 2018.

“The theft of American trade secrets by China costs our nation anywhere from $300 to $600 billion in a year,” Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, said in advance of Thursday’s conference.

The Chinese embassy in Washington rejected the US allegation as “entirely baseless.” “The people-to-people exchange between China and the US is conducive to stronger understanding between the two peoples and serves the fundamental interests of our two countries,” it said in an emailed statement.

Of 137 publicly reported instances of Chinese-linked espionage against the United States since 2000, 73 per cent took place in the last decade, according to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The think-tank’s data, which excludes cases of intellectual property litigation and attempts to smuggle munitions or controlled technologies, shows that military and commercial technologies are the most common targets for theft.

In the area of medical research, of 180 investigations into misuse of National Institutes of Health funds, diversion of research intellectual property and inappropriate sharing of confidential information, more than 90% of the cases have links to China, according to an NIH spokeswoman.

One main reason Chinese espionage, including extensive hacking in cyberspace, has expanded is that “China depends on Western technology and as licit avenues are closed, they turn to espionage to get access,” said James Lewis, a CSIS expert.

In late January alone, federal prosecutors in Boston announced three new criminal cases involving industrial spying or stealing, including charges against a Harvard professor.

Prosecutors said Harvard’s Charles Lieber lied to the Pentagon and NIH about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan - a Chinese government scheme that offers mainly Chinese scientists working overseas lavish financial incentives to bring their expertise and knowledge back to China. They said he also lied about his affiliation with China’s Wuhan University of Technology.

During at least part of the time he was signed up with the Chinese university, Lieber was also a “principal investigator” working on at least six research projects funded by U.S. Defense Department agencies, court documents show.

A lawyer for Lieber did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; editing by Chris Sanders, Tom Brown and Chizu Nomiyama)