China suggested it may detain American citizens as leverage to ease prosecution of Chinese nationals accused of spying in the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.
Beijing hinted at such tactics to national security officials in Washington, sources familiar with the matter told the Journal.
A State Department spokesman warned U.S. citizens that "business disputes, court orders to pay a settlement, or government investigations into both criminal and civil issues may result in an exit ban which will prohibit your departure from China until the issue is resolved."
Justice Department national security head John Demers offered similar concerns.
"We are aware that the Chinese government has, in other instances, detained American, Canadian, and other individuals without legal basis to retaliate against lawful prosecutions and to exert pressure on their governments, with a callous disregard of the individuals involved," he said.
Beijing made its cloaked threat to Washington soon after the United States arrested senior researchers associated with the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Traditionally, Beijing and Washington have resolved such issues privately, so this decision marks a major development in public competition, said former U.S. national security official Craig Singleton, who is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"DOJ’s recent moves represent a full-on assault" on the PLA, Singleton said. "It's a real game-changer that could carry significant risk for both sides."
China has not hesitated to detain prominent foreign nationals in recent years. A cadre of Australian reporters, including one still stuck in China, has been vocal about the Chinese Communist Party's intimidation campaign against journalists.
Some experts wonder if China's move is an attempt to achieve reciprocity with the United States.
A recent report suggests that, because of understaffing, federal authorities flag less than five percent of Chinese student visas for security concerns—even while China steals data and technology from within American borders.