US, China see little progress on cybersecurity

The U.S. and China made little if any progress on cybersecurity when President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.

Chinese hackers have become a major irritant in the U.S.-China relationship, and Obama was expected to make the issue a top priority in the bilateral talks.

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But experts expected the two sides to make little progress, and even as the leaders forged deals on climate change, trade and defense, common ground on cybersecurity was scarce.

Experts said there was no sign of any progress on the issue as the two sides appeared to talk past one another.

“The Chinese talked about cooperating on cyber terrorism, and Obama talked about the importance of protecting intellectual property,” said James Lewis, an international cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s still a disconnect.”

Officials had sought to lower expectations ahead of the meeting. In May, the U.S. indicted five members of the Chinese military for hacking, which chilled any chance for substantive discussion on the issue.

China pulled out of a cybersecurity working group following the charges.

Following an informal dinner with Obama, Xi said he “reaffirmed our firm opposition to terrorism of all forms,” including cyber terrorism. Obama said he “stressed the importance of protecting intellectual property as well as trade secrets, especially against cyber threats.”

Lewis saw a couple glimmers of hope going forward.

China agreed to talks between its Ministry of Public Security and the Department of Homeland Security.

The FBI is the Chinese ministry’s counterpart, so cooperation with the DHS suggests a cybersecurity focus, Lewis said. The department does much of the U.S. government’s cyber work.

The FBI and Chinese ministry have shared terrorism threat information “for years.”

“The fact that it’s DHS suggests a different set of issues,” Lewis said. 

Xi also mentioned “a new type of military-to-military relations between the two countries,” during his press conference with Obama.

If the U.S. Defense Department and China’s People’s Liberation Army actually communicate, those talks “will have to include some parts of cyber,” Lewis said.

“Was there a lot of progress? No,” he said. “But did they at least point things in the right direction? Yes.”