A new milestone was reached between China and the US this week. During Xi Jinping’s, the President of the People’s Republic of China, visit to the US, President Obama and President Xi were able to come to a consensus about online espionage and cybersecurity.
Initial Doubts About Cybersecurity
The visit by the Chinese President has been a much talked about meeting over the last several months. Growing tensions over many factors like cybersecurity, military buildup, disputes in the South China Sea, and the devaluation of the yuan had many doubting the visit.
The buildup to the visit has been quite dramatic. The world has known that cybersecurity was going to be one of the big ticket items during the meeting. A month before his visit, Xi Jinping began organizing a meeting with top US tech companies- even those that don’t have, or no longer have, a foothold in the Chinese market.
Companies invited to the separate meeting held in Seattle, Washington include Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing, and Google among many others. However, the purpose of those meetings aren’t entirely clear.
Some experts speculated that because of the tensions the visit to D.C. would ultimately not happen. Hardliners (and political candidates probably hoping for some extra airtime) like Carly Fiorina and Scott Walker even suggested that the state dinner be taken off the table for the leader of the far east superpower. The always classy Donald Trump didn’t suggest the cancellation of the dinner but said he would offer the Chinese President McDonald’s instead of steak. Despite this, Obama and Xi did meet and made progress on several fronts: not the least of which being cybersecurity.
Before the visit. President Obama set the precedence for the visit by holding press conferences and speaking bluntly on the topic of cybersecuirty.
We are preparing a number of measures that will convey to the Chinese that we are more than serious. My hope is it will fall short of that.
Although, being able to definitively trace cyberattacks is notoriously hard. The US government has placed blame on China for some big cyber attacks that have happened as of late. The worst data breach of all time was the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) which happened in June of this year.
Initially, the government numbered the amount of people effected at 4 million federal workers. That number has since been drastically resized to 21.5 million. Also, the initial estimate of 1.1 million fingerprints breached during the same attack was revised to 5.6 million just this week. The attack has been unofficially attributed to China- and confirmed through anonymous sources. There is no investigation into any other suspected hackers.
However, attacks like these, that could possibly expose undercover agents and covert operations is not where Obama’s concerns lie. As he said, “…we understand how traditional intelligence gathering functions and that all states engage in it including us.” Instead, Obama is attempting to focus on, “…engaging in industrial espionage and stealing trade secrets from a company. We consider that an act of aggression and it must stop.”
China has remained adamant that not only did they not have anything to do with the OPM and economic attacks, but that they are naïve when it comes to cybersecurity issues like cyberwarfare and cyberespionage
Consensus on Cybersecurity
But alas, despite the naysayers and pessimists the two countries were able to come to an agreement. No official documents were signed but President Xi and Obama “have agreed that neither the U.S. or the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets.”
After the meeting, Xi said about the talks, that included climate change as well, were, “constructive and productive…without conflict, without confrontation.” About cybersecurity he said “confrontation and friction are not the right choice for both sides.”
Some of the concrete agreements that came out of the meeting is that Washington and Beijing will open a new cyber “hotline,” for senior officials to raise concerning technical issues. They have also agreed to create positions for senior experts that will act as liaisons between the countries in order to continue discussing cybersecurity.
Admittedly, progress has been made but further nurturing of the agreements is required. The biggest question now, posed by President Obama is if the commitments would be followed by actions.
We [US] are still the best at this. If we wanted to go on offense, a whole bunch of countries would have significant problems. But we don’t want to do that because we don’t want to see the Internet weaponized.
You can follow the author @FreelanceTony
feature image courtesy of U.S. Embassy The Hague