In what experts are calling a major crackdown on Chinese theft of US intellectual property, the FBI has interviewed visa holders in more than 25 US cities, suspected of hiding their military memberships.
The action is likely to further fuel tensions between the world's two largest economies after the US administration ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, Texas.
The administration has intensified charges that China uses cyber operations and espionage to steal US technological, military and other know-how as it seeks to surpass the US as the world's leading financial and military power. Beijing denied the allegations.
The Justice Department said the FBI had arrested three Chinese nationals for allegedly concealing memberships in the Peoples Liberation Army when applying for visas to conduct research at US academic institutions.
The FBI is seeking to arrest a fourth research visa fraud suspect who sought refuge in the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after being interviewed by the bureau in June, the department said.
"These members of China's Peoples Liberation Army applied for research visas while hiding their true affiliation with the PLA," the statement quoted Assistant Attorney General John Demers as saying. "This is another part of the Chinese Communist Party's plan to take advantage of our open society and exploit academic institutions."