BEIJING - China summoned the US ambassador after the United States accused five Chinese military officers of hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets, warning Washington it could take further action, state media said on Tuesday.
The US Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, met with Zheng Zeguang, assistant foreign minister, on Monday shortly after the United States charged the five Chinese, accusing them of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets.
Zheng "protested" the actions by the United States, saying the indictment had seriously harmed relations between both countries, state news agency Xinhua said.
Zheng told Baucus that depending on the development of the situation, China "will take further action on the so-called charges by the United States".
It was the first criminal hacking charge that the United States has filed against specific foreign officials, and follows a steady increase in public criticism and private confrontation, including at a summit last year between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The indictment is likely to further roil relations between China and the United States. Besides cyber hacking, Washington and Beijing have grappled over a range of issues, including human rights, trade disputes and China's growing military assertiveness over seas contested with its neighbours.
"The Chinese government and military and its associated personnel have never conducted or participated in the theft of trade secrets over the Internet," Xinhua quoted Zheng as telling Baucus.
Zheng told Baucus that the US attitude to Internet security was "overbearing and hypocritical" and urged the United States to give China a clear explanation on reports that Washington has long spied on the Chinese government, businesses, universities and individuals.
The US Embassy to China spokesman, Nolan Barkhouse, declined to comment.
The angry reaction from Beijing is likely to be the first major test for Baucus, who arrived in Beijing in March, as he seeks to balance US interests with the desire for more economic cooperation with China.
China is the United States' biggest foreign creditor. As of February, China held $1.27 trillion in US Treasury bonds, according to Treasury Department data.
On Monday, China's Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, "made solemn representations" to the US State Department, the state-run China News Service said on Tuesday.
"The accusations that the United States have made against these Chinese officials are purely fictitious and extremely absurd," Cui was quoted as saying.
The foreign ministry said it would suspend the activities of a Sino-US working group on cyber issues.
The defence ministry issued a similarly pointed statement on Tuesday, saying the accusations contained "ulterior motives".
Skeptics said US authorities would not be able to arrest those indicted because Beijing would not hand them over. Still, the move would prevent the individuals from traveling to the United States or other countries that have an extradition agreement with the United States.
US Federal prosecutors said the suspects targeted companies including Alcoa Inc, Allegheny Technologies Inc, United States Steel Corp, Toshiba Corp unit Westinghouse Electric Co, the US subsidiaries of SolarWorld AG, and a steel workers' union.
According to the indictment, all five defendants worked with Unit 61398 of the People's Liberation Army ", which had been "hired" by Chinese state-owned companies to provide information technology services" including assembling a database of corporate intelligence. The Chinese companies were not named.