Chinese officials are not taking kindly to accusations by the U.S. government that five state-employed Chinese citizens stole proprietary information from American companies, and are warning that the move could harm military ties between the nations. The Department of Justice filed criminal charges against the five individuals yesterday.

The charges of cyber espionage are "purely fictitious and extremely absurd," said Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the U.S. Other officials also reacted strongly to the indictment. In a meeting with the new U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus, China's Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang warned that "China will take further action on the so-called charges by the United States," depending on how the situation proceeds. "The Chinese government and military and its associated personnel have never conducted or participated in the theft of trade secrets over the Internet," Zheng said to Baucus, per Chinese foreign ministry reports.  

China has already said it will cease cooperation with the U.S. in a joint effort to enforce cyber security because of the indictment. 

Chinese leaders are frustrated by the accusations in part because they see the U.S. as constantly issuing cyber attacks against their own government and businesses. The country's State Internet Information Office said the indictment was like "a thief yelling 'Catch the thief.'" The U.S. has argued that it only hacks into Chinese computers for spying purposes, which it contends is more acceptable than stealing industry secrets. China thinks the U.S. is doing both, per Reuters

The majority of China's Internet users are now furious because they think the United States has "double standards" on spying, Jin said, adding that negative domestic public opinion would have a detrimental effect on Sino-U.S. relations. The leaks by National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden have given China grounds for accusing the United States of infiltrating Chinese companies and government offices.

Yesterday's indictment marked the first time Washington has taken action against hackers employed by foreign governments, signifying a more aggressive approach to deter cyber espionage than it has taken in the past. Still, according to some analysts, the charge is a symbolic one. In order to be punished, the five accused would have to be tried on U.S. soil and it is unlikely that China will agree to extradite the nationals. According to the Associated Press, harsh words between the two sides could be as far as the conflict goes: 

Despite the pointed language, damage to U.S.-Chinese relations is likely to be limited, with little change in trade or military links, because Beijing realizes the indictment of the five officers is symbolic, said Shen Dingli, a director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University. He has close ties to China's foreign policy establishment. Beijing is unlikely to engage in tit-for-tat retaliation such as issuing its own indictments of American soldiers and probably will go ahead with plans to take part in U.S.-hosted naval exercises next month, Shen said. 

Shen says that the cybersecurity cooperation could be a casualty of the indictment, but adds that after three meetings, the group hadn't made any progress, so the loss won't be a great one.