China takes hard line on cyber spying

China is taking a tough public line on cybersecurity ahead of a summit next month to be attended by President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Hacking and cybersecurity is expected to be on the agenda at next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing, where the Obama administration is expected to press China on reported hacking on U.S. companies and the government.

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Publicly, China has been signaling it is barely willing to talk about the subject in Beijing, but experts say their position might be softer in private.

“In private, I think their position isn't as hard,” said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He suggested the Chinese are setting the stage for Beijing.

“They are trying to figure out how best to play the summit,” he said.

China’s foreign ministry said over the weekend that it would be difficult to resume talks on cybersecurity due to “wrong actions taken by the American side,”  a stance it has continuously taken. 

The ministry said the United States should take steps to restart the talks and insisted China does crack down on cyber hackers in its country. 

The hard line followed a weekend meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart.

Getting China to crack down on hackers who allegedly break into U.S. computer systems as part of an industrial espionage campaign is of high importance for the administration.

“We’re not looking for a softening of tone on the part of the Chinese when it comes to cyber or other areas of significant difference,” a State Department official said after the weekend meeting. “We are looking for an improvement in behavior.”

It is unclear how big a role cybersecurity will play during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation talks, which are also focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and disputes in the South China Sea. 

State Department press secretary Jen Psaki last week said she “would be surprised” if cybersecurity did not come up. Others have also been told it will be on the agenda. 

In May, China pulled out of the U.S.-China Cybersecurity Working Group, after the United States indicted five members of the Chinese military. 

The FBI charged members of the People's Liberation Army with cyber spying for targeting a range of U.S. companies at the time. It is unlikely the Chinese-based individuals will ever be tried in the United States.

More recently, the FBI last week warned U.S. businesses to be on the lookout for “cyber espionage" by a group affiliated with the Chinese government. And FBI Director James Comey recently compared Chinese hackers to “drunken burglars,” asserting they are prolific but relatively easy to spot.

China, for its part, has accused the U.S. of cyber spying, pointing to the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Lewis said the summit will be an important milestone for China, which he said is still figuring out whether to play hardball with the United States or make some kind of concession.

He said there’s a chance talks will resume if the summit goes well.  

“But it really depends — if the summit goes badly, if they end up yelling at each other, then no, you are not going to see anything,” Lewis said. 

Other possibilities beyond resuming talks include exploring a new framework for international cybersecurity, he added. 

Adam Segal, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States is sending the message that it is ready to restart talks. But resuming talks do not appear likely anytime soon, he said. 

“I don't see the U.S. offering anything to bring the Chinese back to the table, and the Chinese don't really have any incentive to come back right now,” he said. 

If resumed, he said the talks would likely focus on issues such as how to reduce miscommunication during a crisis or an agreement on whether the laws of armed conflict apply to cyberspace. 

“The talks are likely to do very little to actually address the problem that both sides are concerned about, which is espionage,” he said. 

“I think it is fairly clear that neither side is going to give up espionage at any time and it would be kind of hard to come to any agreement in these talks about espionage or what would be considered a legitimate target,” Segal added.