A Chinese national with links to Taiwan has been charged in the US with trying to illegally buy vast quantities of a highly restricted material used in the manufacture of fighter planes. It is believed that the material — an aerospace-grade carbon fiber — is needed by Beijing in order to develop its fifth generation fighter known as the J-XX.
Zhang Ming Suan (張明算), 40, is being held in custody without bail, while a Taiwanese couple remain under investigation in Taipei.
According to court papers, the case began five months ago after the Taiwanese couple contacted a Web site which was purporting to sell aerospace technology. When they were told that an export license would be needed to buy the carbon fiber they had requested, the couple said they wanted to sidestep that process. The couple were unaware that the Web site was actually being run by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and was part of an international “sting” operation.
Following the initial approach, telephone lines used by the couple were monitored. US agents refuse to say if the monitoring was conducted by Taiwanese authorities, but that appears to have been the case. As a result of the monitoring, agents learned that the couple was acting as a go-between for Zhang, who lived in Quanzhou, Fujian Province.
Zhang told a judge in Brooklyn Federal Court this week: “I am innocent.”
Sources close to the prosecution told the Taipei Times that few details were being released due to the “extreme sensitivity” of the case.
Carbon fiber can increase the strength and stealth capabilities of military aircraft, but details of its manufacture are kept strictly secret and Beijing is believed to have suffered a number of failures in its efforts to reproduce the product.
Prosecutors are refusing to reveal where and when Zhang was arrested, but one source indicated that it was last week in New York. He was lured to the US as part of the sting operation.
Zhang told the Taiwanese couple he wanted to buy carbon fiber without an export license for use in the manufacture of sports equipment.
In a call intercepted in July this year, Zhang said: “When I place the order, I place one for one or two tons.”
The carbon fiber involved sells for about US$2 million dollars a ton.
Court papers say that an undercover Homeland Security agent e-mailed Zhang inviting him to the US to discuss a deal and Zhang told the agent the carbon fiber was needed for the test flight of a fighter plane on Oct. 5.
Prosecutors said Zhang told Homeland Security agents he had an “urgent need for the carbon fiber in connection with the scheduled test flight of a Chinese fighter plane.”
Zhang is alleged to have told the agent that before buying a large quantity of the carbon fiber on offer he would need a sample to send back to China for testing. He was arrested when he arrived at a prearranged meeting place to pick up the sample.
Court-appointed lawyer Daniel Nobel said that Zhang was “an honest businessman who was caught up in something he didn’t really understand.”
Military experts have said that China is particularly anxious to obtain the sort of carbon fiber that would aid in the stealth design of its J-XX stealth fighter.
“It is very effective at making a plane totally invisible to radar,” Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said in an interview with the New York Post.