SPEAKING IN the White House Rose Garden in September 2015, Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping announced a breakthrough. The United States and China pledged that neither nation “will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage.” But Mr. Xi’s promises were flimsy and short-lived. The agreement has collapsed. China is again trying to steal its way to greatness, and that calls for a resolute response.
The latest sign of trouble, but hardly the only sign, came in the indictments unsealed last week by the Justice Department. The United States charged that a state-owned Chinese company attempted to steal trade secrets from Micron, a semiconductor company based in Idaho that is the only U.S. maker of “dynamic random-access memory,” or DRAM, vital memory chips for computers, mobile devices and other electronics.
According to the indictment, one of Micron’s employees went to work for the Chinese company, then recruited others who brought with them 900 files that included confidential DRAM designs. The U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, Alex Tse, said the haul took “some of the most advanced semiconductor technology in the world.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the stolen trade secrets were valued at $8.75 billion.
China lacked DRAM technology until recently, and the Micron case is another example of China’s quest to climb the ladder of economic development by stealing overseas technology and copying, re-engineering and manufacturing it, leapfrogging what would otherwise be decades of difficult and expensive work. This is not the sort of espionage seeking state secrets that all countries undertake, but a very targeted stealing to help China’s companies profit and conquer markets. The companies also receive robust capital infusions from the state. After the 2015 Rose Garden announcement, the Chinese stealing subsided for a while, so fewer U.S. companies were hit, but then the pace accelerated again in 2017.
Mr. Sessions insisted that “cheating must stop.” Mr. Obama had also insisted: “I indicated that it has to stop.” In fact, China’s industrial espionage is not a passing fancy but the pillar of a long-term drive to become a global economic, military and political power, with ambitions to rival the United States. Sadly, the hopes of the past two decades, that Beijing would become a fair competitor playing by international rules, have been dashed.
It is a good first response to indict the perpetrators in the Micron case, and for Mr. Sessions to bolster resources and attention to the threat. Beyond that, however, the United States must see the Chinese espionage for what it truly represents: the pursuit of superpower might by stealing the labor and investment of others. The economies of the United States and China are inexorably entwined, which will make confronting the espionage threat even harder. But it must be done. In the end, China will respond only to compulsion.