Qin Shuren made no secret of his interest in underwater drones, according to his neighbors in the affluent Boston suburb of Wellesley.
The Chinese national once invited local kids to test a subaquatic robot in his backyard pool, they recalled, and another time demonstrated one at his children’s school.
Neighbors were stunned when police arrived at Mr. Qin’s colonial-style home in 2018 and placed him under arrest. On Wednesday, Mr. Qin is set to plead guilty in federal court to felony charges that he illegally procured more than $100,000 in U.S. marine technology for a Chinese military research institute.
Under a plea agreement Mr. Qin reached with the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, he is expected to plead guilty to counts of conspiring to commit export violations, visa fraud, lying to government agents, money laundering and smuggling.
Prosecutors agreed in exchange to drop several other counts and said they would ask that Mr. Qin serve the lower end of the punishment prescribed by sentencing guidelines, which could be around seven years in prison, depending on the judge’s findings.
U.S. officials and court documents filed in the case describe Mr. Qin as a cog in Beijing’s grand plan to build an undersea drone armada—one built in part on acquiring advanced U.S. and allied technology—that is emerging as a threat to American naval might.
In the Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans, Beijing is deploying growing numbers of advanced sea drones, forming sensor networks that U.S. officials believe could track American submarines. That could erode the U.S. Navy’s critical edge beneath the waves just as its surface ships are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese missiles.
China’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to questions about its unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV, capabilities, but said allegations China stole U.S. technology were “completely untrue.”
In court, Mr. Qin’s attorneys described him as a businessman who provides oceanographic instruments to Chinese scientists. They said he moved to the U.S. to give his children an American education and “conduct more business with manufacturers” based in the U.S.
According to the plea agreement, Mr. Qin is expected to admit using fake shipping information to buy from a U.S. supplier 60 hydrophones, or devices used to detect and monitor sound underwater.
Prosecutors say he misled the American supplier when he said the underwater microphones were for a civilian Chinese researcher. Instead, they were ultimately sent, without a required export license, to the Chinese institute that…