Beijing summoned the US ambassador and accused Washington of double standards Tuesday as a diplomatic row escalated over the unprecedented indictment of five Chinese military officers for cyber-espionage.

The world’s top two economies have long been at loggerheads over hacking and China’s defence ministry denounced Washington’s allegations as “a pure fabrication by the US, a move to mislead the public based on ulterior motives”.

“From ‘WikiLeaks’ to the ‘Snowden’ case, US hypocrisy and double standards regarding the issue of cyber-security have long been abundantly clear,” the ministry said in a statement on its website.

China summoned US ambassador Max Baucus to lodge a “solemn representation” over the indictment, and suspended cooperation with the US on cyber-security issues.

It also banned the use of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system on all new government computers and suspended activities of a bilateral cyber working group.

Beijing’s furious response came after a US grand jury indicted five Chinese officers on charges they broke into US computers to benefit Chinese state-owned companies, in the first-ever prosecution by Washington of state actors over cyber-espionage.

Analysts said the United States was unlikely to be able to put the men on trial but the indictments were an attempt to apply public pressure on China over the issue.

Unit 61398
US prosecutors said the five officers belonged to Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army.

A report last year by US security firm Mandiant said the unit had thousands of workers operating from a nondescript, 12-storey building on the outskirts of Shanghai to pilfer intellectual property and government secrets.

The grand jury indicted each of the five on 31 counts, which each carry up to 15 years in prison.

Despite China’s criticism, the move won wide support among US politicians who have been urging a tougher response on concerns ranging from trade disputes to Beijing’s military tensions with its neighbours.

“China is living in a fantasy land if they are denying the reality of these infringements,” Senator Chris Murphy, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told AFP.

Murphy recognised that internal Chinese politics “requires them to take a hard line. But these indictments are way overdue and we shouldn’t bend at all.”

Hoo Tiang Boon, a China expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that the United States wanted to show Beijing that it can identify culprits and effectively bar them from travelling.

“I think the US, they probably realised they’re not going to get any cooperation from the Chinese, so they wanted to take things into their own hands,” he said.

“It’s a pretty calibrated move, because it basically means that these five individuals, they can’t travel anywhere around the world to places where there are extradition treaties with the United States,” he added.

China itself regularly seeks to use legalistic routes to pursue its interests, as in its proclamation of a so-called “nine-dash line” to justify its territorial claims over much of the South China Sea.

James Brown, a military fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said that by trying to move the cyber-espionage debate into the legal realm, the US was taking a “taking a page out of China’s playbook”.

Snowden leaks
Beijing has in the past accused the US of hypocrisy on cyber-spying and foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday: “It is the US who has launched cyber-surveillance and wire-tapping against individuals, companies and institutions of many countries around the world. China is a victim of this.”

Leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden have alleged widespread US snooping in China including into telecom giant Huawei — which has itself been the object of security allegations.

Xinhua cited data from an official Chinese network centre as showing that from mid-March to mid-May, “a total of 2,077 Trojan horse networks or botnet servers in the US directly controlled 1.18 million host computers in China”.

Hoo said Beijing and Washington see cyber-espionage differently.

“I think all along the Obama administration has been trying to demonstrate that spying for national security purposes is fair game,” he said. “But if you do it for commercial interests, that’s a different story altogether: that’s intellectual property theft.”