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US-China spy spat: What it really means

The U.S. wants to send a message to Beijing that industrial espionage is not fair game -- that's the real point behind criminal charges against five Chinese hackers, analysts say.

The Justice Department on Monday filed charges against five hackers in the Chinese military, accusing them of stealing American trade secrets through cyber-espionage, NBC reported.

Read MoreUS charges China with cyber-spying on American firms

China on Tuesday reacted by summoning the U.S. ambassador to China and in a separate statement said its military has never engaged in cyberspying on businesses.

"I would be surprised if this goes all that much further. I think that Washington is trying to send a message that says 'hey we're onto you guys,'" Alexander Kliment, director at the Eurasia Group, told CNBC.

"It would be very difficult for the U.S. to substantially change Chinese behavior in this area without a massive escalation in these charges or a broadening of those charges that could really start to affect the economic interests of the U.S.," he added.

The U.S. and China, the world's two biggest economies, have strong trade ties.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listens during a news conference to announce indictments against Chinese military hackers on cyber-espionage.
Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listens during a news conference to announce indictments against Chinese military hackers on cyber-espionage.

According to the U.S.-China Business Council, between 2000 and 2011, total U.S. exports to China rose 542 percent to $103.9 billion. Over the same period, total U.S. exports to the rest of the world rose 80 percent.

The spy charges focus on U.S. companies in the nuclear power, metals and solar products industries.

Read MoreInvestigations Inc.: Cyber Espionage

According to Frank Holmes, CEO & Chief Investment Officer, U.S. Global Investors, the strategy of filing criminal charges against specific individuals is similar to that targeted at those involved with drug trafficking.

"The strategy has been effective in Latin America with going after drug lords," he said. "It allows the U.S. government to make these charges against an individual and if they land in any other jurisdiction there is a chance of them being arrested and sent back to the U.S. That is the big message."

In Beijing, China rebuked the charges made. It called on the U.S. to immediately stop spying on China and added that the charges have damaged trust between the U.S. and Chinese military, Reuters reported.

Last month, the founder of China's Huawei Technologies said media reports that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on his company came as no surprise.

That followed press reports in March that documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed the U.S. agency accessed servers at Huawei's headquarters in Shenzhen.

Read MoreHuawei's founder rejects possibility of stock market listing

"It [the criminal charges] will cause tension in the U.S.—China relationship but it's not the sea change that some have made it out to be," Christian Whiton, principal, DC International Advisory, told CNBC.

"It's a little surprising on the face of it but it's not that big a deal. A completely different approach on commercial espionage would be a surprise from an administration that has been fairly partial to Beijing," he added.

Holmes at U.S. Global Investors added this: "I think they [the U.S. and China] will do business together," he said. "But if you get on these lists it is extremely difficult to get off and it starts to grow. That is difficult, that is the key factor to be cognizant of."

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