U.S., China Meet on Cybersecurity

Timothy Farnsworth

U.S. and Chinese officials met on July 8 to discuss cybersecurity issues between the two countries, including norms for state behavior in cyberspace, espionage, and intellectual theft. The meeting in Washington was the first of a cybersecurity working group of high-ranking civilian and military officials from the United States and China.

According to a senior Obama administration official, the discussions were constructive. “Both sides made practical proposals to increase our cooperation and build greater understanding and transparency between the two sides,” the official said during a background briefing to reporters after the meeting, adding that the United States “expect[s] this meeting will be the start of substantive and…sustained discussions” between it and China on cybersecurity issues. At a subsequent briefing July 11, a senior administration official said the two sides agreed to have a second meeting of the working group by the end of the year. Secretary of State John Kerry first announced the creation of the working group in an April 13 press briefing during a visit to China.

Cybersecurity issues have risen to the highest level of discussions between the two countries, including the meeting between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their June summit in California. In recent months, Beijing and Washington have accused each other of conducting large-scale cyberintrusions into government and private computers. The main complaint by U.S. officials regarding China’s activities is the stealing of intellectual property from private U.S. companies. A May report from the U.S. Defense Department to Congress for the first time accused the Chinese government and military of being responsible for thousands of cyberattacks against the United States. (See ACT, June 2013.)

Although China publicly denies conducting cybertheft activities, “[i]n private, they aren’t disavowing it anymore,” James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a July 23 hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee.

The United States “went through something like this with China before regarding nonproliferation,” and “the steps we used there probably will work in this case,” said Lewis, a former U.S. official. The United States needs to “engage the Chinese directly” and come up with an agreement on what is responsible behavior in cyberspace, he said.

U.S. officials say the two countries have made some progress in opening up a dialogue over cybersecurity issues to include discussion of legal norms. During a June meeting of a UN group of governmental experts on cyberspace issues, China and the United States reached agreement that current international law, including the law of armed conflict and the law of state responsibility, applies to activities in cyberspace, a position that China previously opposed. The agreement between those two countries made possible a consensus statement by the 15-country group. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

The cybersecurity talks from the U.S.-Chinese working group carried over into broader discussions between senior U.S. and Chinese officials on economic and security issues held during the same week in Washington.

“The success of our countries depends on one another,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said at the end of those talks July 11. Cybersecurity “is a critical new area where we need to reach a shared understanding of the rules of the road,” he said.