US government officials say they do not know, in part because the problem is too widespread and difficult to track.
By its very definition, black market smuggling is hard to monitor and quantify. Quite often, sensitive US technology is legally shipped to friendly nations and then immediately and illegally reshipped to China.
China also presents a special challenge: It is both the largest destination for legally exported US-made goods outside North America and the most or second-most frequent destination for smuggled US technology.
A 2010 classified Pentagon assessment showed a spike in legal shipments to China of “dual-use” technology — products that have civilian and military purposes, a person involved in the study said.
The technology products the Chinese military seeks tend to be miniaturized, and thus are not easily identifiable to US border agents — unlike drugs, for example. And trafficking in these goods is not technically illegal until someone tries to export them.
“When you think about how many legitimate transactions go to a place like China, it makes it very difficult to track,” said Craig Healy, a senior Homeland Security official who directs the US export enforcement center.
Officially published US estimates of how frequently US arms technology gets smuggled are incomplete.
By one Pentagon calculation, suspicious queries to US defense manufacturers by entities linked to China increased 88 percent from 2011 to last year. The government will not disclose the number of cases that underlie that percentage.
US defense and intelligence officials said that although they closely monitor the Chinese buildup, they believe China remains at least a decade behind the US.
“They still have a long way to go,” one senior US defense official said.
Reuters analyzed court records from 280 arms-smuggling cases brought by the US government from Oct. 1, 2005, to Oct. 1 this year.
Reporters also interviewed two dozen counter-proliferation agents and reviewed hundreds of internal FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Commerce Department documents.
The number of counter-proliferation arrests related to all countries quadrupled from 54 to 226 from 2010 to last year, internal law enforcement records show.
Since 2008, the number of China-related space-technology investigations — like the undercover case against the Oakland man — has increased approximately 75 percent, US law enforcement sources said.
Since late last year, federal agents say they have begun nearly 80 space-and-satellite-related investigations.
“I think we’re getting better at this, but this stuff is rampant,” FBI assistant director for counter-intelligence Robert Anderson Jr said, referring to cases involving all potentially hostile nations, not just China.
“The more you dig in these cases,” he said, “the more potential investigations you find.”
A MAN NAMED ‘HOPE’
US counter-proliferation agents say the 2011 Oakland sting is typical of dozens launched recently against people trying to acquire space and missile technology for China.
It also demonstrates the difficulty in dismantling smuggling networks, even when a target appears patently suspicious from the outset.
The Oakland investigation began in spring 2011. The manufacturer, Aeroflex of Colorado Springs, Colorado, received an e-mail from a man who called himself Philip Hope of Oakland. The man wanted to buy two kinds of rad-chips — 112 of one type and 200 of the other. The total cost: US$549,654.