WASHINGTON (AP) — The indictment of five Chinese military officials on cyber espionage charges will intensify friction between Beijing and Washington that has been growing as China gets bolder in asserting its territorial claims in disputed seas in East Asia.
That doesn't mean there will be a fracture in the U.S.-China relationship, which remains vital for both of the world powers, but it raises major doubts about the ability of U.S. and China to manage their differences.
"This adds to the mounting list of hugely problematic issues between the U.S. and China," said Jonathan Pollack, a specialist on East Asian politics and security at the Brookings Institution think tank. "Barring a level of candor and disclosure from China on some of these issues that we haven't seen to date, it seems to me we're heading for very troubled waters."
China reacted swiftly to the indictment that accuses the military officials of hacking big-name American makers of nuclear and solar technology. It rejected the allegations as "ungrounded and absurd" and denied its military or government personnel had ever participated in cyber theft of trade secrets. On Tuesday, China warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties and demanded Washington withdraw the indictment.
China also pulled out of working discussions on cyber security — an issue that loomed large when President Barack Obama met last June with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
That summit, held in California, was intended to set a positive tone for the relationship, what Beijing likes to call a "new model of great power relations." But the cracks in that model are already showing.
The two governments have tried, with limited success, to find common cause in resisting North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. They made strides last year toward negotiating a bilateral investment treaty that would deepen an economic relationship in which two-way trade already exceeds $560 billion.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. expects China to understand that the indictment relates to law enforcement, and that the two nations can still have a "constructive and productive relationship." She said she expected a high-level U.S.-China security and economic dialogue to go ahead as planned in about two months' time.
Michael Pillsbury, a former senior U.S. defense department official and China specialist, noted that Washington only announced the indictment nearly three weeks after it was made by a grand jury in Pennsylvania. That means it did not cloud the visit to Washington last week by China's People's Liberation Army's Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui, who met Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. The two generals stressed the importance of military cooperation for regional stability.
But as China's power rises, and the U.S. attempts to broaden its footprint in Asia as part of its attempt to rebalance its foreign policy after a decade of war in the Middle East, there are growing areas of disagreement.