Two US Navy sailors have been arrested for passing classified or sensitive material to China, including military details on wartime exercises and strategic operations.
Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old sailor, was arrested on espionage-related charges, specifically conspiracy to provide national defense information to Chinese officials. He is attached to the San Diego-based USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship which is known to operate in the Pacific region, and even waters off Southeast Asia.
In a separate but similar case, 26-year old Wenhen Zhao was also charged over allegations he handed off sensitive US military videos and photos to Chinese intelligence. The DOJ specified the timeframe for the alleged espionage happened between August 2021 through this May (and possibly beyond). The two sailors, especially Zhao, allegedly provided material exposing classified information related to large-scale US Navy exercise in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is as yet unclear if the two cases are directly related, or whether they were in contact with the same Chinese intelligence officer.
According to some of the specifics, "The DOJ alleges that Wei communicated with the Chinese intelligence officer, providing him with manuals and photos of amphibious ships, such as Essex and other big deck amphibious warships. Wei was paid for the information."
The DOJ says it has evidence that at one point, Wei confided to another sailor that the Chinese intelligence officer had contacted him, and that he'd been asked to spy for China.
Wei has been charged under the Espionage Act, which is rare, as it involves criminally aiding a foreign government. The Chinese appeared to be after closely guarded secrets on US defense tech and operations in the South China Sea and elsewhere, per more from USNI:
The Chinese intelligence officer asked for specific items, including information on the Navy and Marine F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter “lightning carrier” concept, as well as other amphibious combat concepts. The majority of the requests focused on amphibs, with the intelligence officer also asking for the number of Marines that would be involved in international maritime exercises.
Over the course of several months, Wei also sent numerous technical and mechanical manuals that contained information about the systems on naval ships. Wei provided information on the repairs and mechanical problems that affected ship deployment as requested, according to the indictment.
Zhao allegedly sent the intelligence officer controlled operational plans for a large scale exercise in the Indo-Pacific region, which included naval movements that were marked CUI (controlled unclassified information) or FOUO (for official use only).
The 2 U.S. Navy Sailors Charged With Spying for China appear to be Chinese-American. Not a good plot twist. https://t.co/GK4N1DDyaf— Jonathan Schanzer (@JSchanzer) August 4, 2023
Without doubt, all of this is likely part of stepped-up Chinese intelligence efforts to gain a strategic edge in any potential future clash over Taiwan. Beijing has drastically increased its PLA navy and air force activities near the self-ruled island.
The two espionage cases further suggests this could be the tip of the iceberg. How many more spies does China have embedded in the US military?