Lawmakers press Obama to get tough with China on cyber espionage

Congressional pressure is mounting for President Obama to talk tough this week to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on cybersecurity.

House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is calling on Obama to explicitly warn the Chinese president that cyberattacks waged by the country's government and military against the U.S. "will not be tolerated."

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"In years past, this cyber trade war has been well down the list of bilateral concerns to address with China. It is high time for it to jump to the top of the list," Rogers said in a statement to The Hill.

The House Intelligence Chairman has accused China of waging a sweeping cyber espionage campaign against American companies and the government. Rogers has made cybersecurity, particularly cyberattacks stemming from China, a cornerstone issue for the committee.

The leaders of the world's two largest economies will meet face-to-face for the first time since Xi was elected president this spring at a private estate in California on Friday and Saturday.

The meetings will take place just a week after a leaked government report revealed that Chinese hackers had accessed designs for some of the military's top weapons systems, throwing a spotlight on simmering tensions between the two countries on cybersecurity.

Following these revelations, which were first reported by The Washington Post, key lawmakers like Rogers have called on Obama to warn Xi that consequences should be expected if China attacks U.S. entities in cyberspace.

That also includes a top member of the president's own party.

This past week Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) publicly called on Obama to tell Xi that Congress is mobilizing to take action against Chinese cyberattacks on American companies.

In a letter to the president, Levin asked Obama to warn his Chinese counterpart that the Senate is readying legislation designed to impose "real costs on China" if it siphons proprietary information from U.S. businesses.

Levin said he plans to seek action this year on a bill he co-authored that would, among other things, require the president to block imports of goods that benefit from stolen American intellectual property or technology into the U.S., if he deems such action necessary.

Over the past year, reports of Chinese hackers breaching the computer systems of U.S. companies have escalated. Computer security firm Mandiant released a report earlier this year that alleged an elite military unit of Chinese hackers had cracked into the computer systems of more than 100 U.S. businesses. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post reported this year that they were hit by cyberattacks stemming from China.

The Obama administration has become bolder in confronting China about the hacking problem, with the president’s national security advisor notably calling on China this spring to “take serious steps” to investigate and stop the attacks.

But Obama and Xi will need to walk a fine diplomatic line when discussing the cybersecurity issue during their meeting, according to James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There's a lot of things going on with the relationship and we want to partner with the Chinese,” Lewis said. “It's a balancing act, but we've done this sort of stuff before.”

Maintaining a partnership with China is key concern of American industry that does business in the country.

The U.S.-China Business Council (USBC), which represents more than 200 American companies that do business in China, like Oracle and Google, encouraged both leaders to agree on addressing the problem so the U.S.-Sino business relationship is preserved.

“Cybersecurity concerns threaten to undermine the positive and constructive commercial relationship between the United States and China,” said Marc Ross, a spokesman for the group, in an email.

“USCBC believes next week’s meeting in California provides high-level engagement for American and Chinese government leaders to address these troublesome issues and keep the commercial relationship moving forward constructively,” Ross added.

Despite the lawmakers’ calls to put pressure on the Chinese president, Lewis argued that the most Obama can do during his meeting with Xi next week is build on the existing U.S.-China working group on cybersecurity.

“The thing that people don't understand is the pace and the timing of negotiations between the two biggest economies in the world. If you think back to negotiations with the Soviet Union, they didn't show up one day and then agree the next,” Lewis said.

“These are big countries, it's going to take time,” he added. “There is no alternative.”