Cyberspace On Agenda in US-China Summit

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

September 21, 2015

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, seems to be the operative strategy the White House is employing with the Chinese government with the imminent arrival in Washington of President Xi. With his “Pivot to East Asia” policy, Obama in the past has turned his back on China, and created foreign policy disasters in the Middle East and the Ukraine. He now, however, wishes to keep alive his flailing Pacific Trade Agreement by currying favor with the Chinese.

This move is bound to be cast as an epic encounter to becalm the cyberwars in which China has clearly gained the upper hand, and, of course, any outcome will be hailed as a major foreign policy victory for the Obama administration. But make no mistake, in its effort to preserve and protect things such as the ability to attack a country’s critical infrastructure, Washington is dealing from a position of weakness.

First off, the agenda might address attacks on the power grid and telecommunication networks, but it would not protect or defend against the most heinous tactics used by the Chinese in the past, such as the poaching of corporate intellectual property, and the invasion of federal employees employment records. Secondly, Obama is tiptoeing around the issue as if it were a live grenade, using weak rhetoric such as this is ’’probably one of the big topics”, and we’re going ’’to see if we and the Chinese are able to coalesce around a process for negotiations.” These words hardly inspire confidence for a meaningful outcome.

Obama and Xi should be held to the high standard set by the UN on cyberspace behaviour. To wit, no State should allow activity “that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public.” Yet, even with this proviso as a blueprint, it is unlikely that any deal coming out of the talks will directly address the most urgent problems of cyberattacks with Chinese origin, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe continuing negotiations.

Right now, the most urgent problem that surrounds the Chinese theft of US intellectual property and espionage in general – the Sony hack last year, and the incursion into 22 million personal security files from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack are two cases in point, and fall squarely at the feet of the People’s Liberation Army*. But problems have arisen with the notion of cyberspace negotiation. In many respects, it is more difficult than arms negotiations, or thorny debates over nuclear deterrence. In these scenarios, you are dealing with governments and leaders. With cyber- crime, the bad actors could be cyber criminals, or even teenagers emboldened by, but not beholden to, their governments.

Experience does not proffer much optimism, as earlier overtures to Xi and the Chinese government have fallen on deaf ears, most notably in 2013 at the last summit between the US and China in California. China has predictably denied any coordinated government-sanctioned attack, and instead decried US attacks on it. And it rightly points to the billions of dollars the US is spending in beefing up its offensive cyber capabilities with new generation weapons that can place “beacons” or “implants” in foreign computer networks to counter similar measures by the Chinese.

Still, any agreement to limit cyberattacks in peacetime would be a start. As Vikram Singh, a former Pentagon and State Department official and now vice president for international security at the Center for American Progress, observed,

It would be the first time that cyber is treated as a military capability that needs to be governed as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are.”

And to be sure, dialogue is better than out and out warfare. But it always seems that, at least with this administration, the US is always on defense and playing catch-up to its detriment. I guess it is comfortable with “leading from behind.”

*Editor’s note: The Sony hack is widely understood to originate from North Korea, not China.

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