China’s foreign ministry dismissed on Monday a report suggesting U.S. officials were worried that massive, Chinese-made cargo container cranes at American ports could be used to snoop on U.S. military or business logistics. The apparent concern over the hulking machines being used as tools for China’s intelligence services highlights what an American business leader in Beijing described conservatively to CBS News as a “chill” in economic relations between the world’s two largest economies.
The article published over the weekend by The Wall Street Journal said U.S. national security and military officials were “growing concerned” because the massive machines at some American cargo ports made by the Chinese state-run manufacturer ZPMC, “contain sophisticated sensors that can register and track the provenance and destination of containers.”
The newspaper said the technology could enable Chinese officials to “capture information about materiel being shipped in or out of the country to support U.S. military operations around the world,” and to try to disrupt trade.
Tension between China and the U.S. has soared in recent years, with senior serving and former American military officials voicing— most likely over the tiny, democratically governed island of .
With that backdrop, China’s foreign ministry on Monday dismissed the suggestion of spy cranes as “overly paranoid” and said it would serve only to “mislead the U.S. public.”
But Bill Evanina, a former senior U.S. counterintelligence official, told The Wall Street Journal that the high-tech cargo cranes could indeed represent a “perfect combination of legitimate business that can also masquerade as clandestine intelligence collection.”
The newspaper quoted a statement from China’s U.S. embassy as labelling the information in the report an effort to disrupt the huge amount of commerce still done between the two nations.
“Playing the ‘China card’ and floating the ‘China threat’ theory is irresponsible and will harm the interests of the U.S. itself,” the statement provided to the Journal said, according to the newspaper.
The latest back-and-forth accusations between Beijing and Washington come as China’s National People’s Congress — the largest rubber-stamp parliament in the world — convened in the Chinese capital. Almost 3,000 delegates from around the vast nation have gathered to formally enshrine in law the wishes of their leader, President Xi Jinping.
This year, in the wake of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that started in China three years ago, repairing the damage to the country’s economy that came as a side effect of the virus quickly emerged as a top priority for Xi’s administration.
Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-most powerful leader, told the gathered delegates the development target for the country this year would be around 5% economic growth.
It’s not clear if that level of growth, if it can be achieved, will translate into good news for American companies that do business in China, and as U.S.-China relations continue to sour, some U.S. businesses fear they’re already suffering the fallout.
“There certainly is a chill in the air,” said Michael Hart, who heads the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. “Companies feel like they’re squeezed out of certain industries, and so there is a question mark that many U.S. companies have about, you know, are we really welcome?”
The extent to which they do feel welcome will depend to a large extent on President Xi, who will officially begin his unprecedented third term as China’s leader later this week.
Hart and many other business leaders in both China and the U.S. will be watching this week’s congress in Beijing closely for any clues as to whether Xi will escalate the confrontation with the U.S. and its allies this year, or seek to dial it back.
The Chinese embassy’s statement to The Wall Street Journal, warning that the latest accusations of possible intelligence gathering by Chinese machinery would “harm the interests of the U.S. itself,” may be some of the first tea leaves to read as the members of China’s rubber-stamp congress get to work.