By Cory Bennett - 09/25/15 06:05 PM EDT
Lawmakers were encouraged yet wary of a deal the White House and China revealed Friday, in which both sides committed to not support the digital theft of industry secrets.
At least six members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — used the phase “step forward” or “first step” to describe the accord.
“There’s a difference between an agreement on paper and having the Chinese government, including the People’s Liberation Army, actually stop conducting and supporting cyber attacks on U.S. companies,” said Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinHotel lobby cheers scrutiny on Airbnb GOP platform attempts middle ground on encryption debate Week ahead: Encryption fight poised to heat up MORE (D-Calif.).
The White House has publicly accused China of encouraging a widespread cyber campaign to steal American corporate secrets. Privately, officials have also blamed China for the recent devastating hacks at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which exposed more than 20 million federal workers’ sensitive information.
“We cannot be blind to the damage already inflicted upon us by hackers linked to the Chinese government,” said Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerBehind the scenes on Day 2 of the Republican convention Lobbyists bolting Trump convention early The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Colo.), who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity.
Gardner, along with several other members of Congress, got the chance to express their discontent directly to Xi in a Friday meeting. Gardner said they told the Chinese leader the country’s cyberspace behavior was “unacceptable,” and pressed Beijing to respect global norms.
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellProgressive group changes tone on Kaine Trump hits Kaine on TPP: He supports a 'job killer' Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDems put immigration front-and-center on convention's first day Dem ad blasts Indiana senate candidate on Social Security Super-PAC targets Portman on trade MORE (D-Nev.), Feinstein, Orrin HatchOrrin HatchFroman: Too early to start trade talks with the UK Bacteria found ahead of Olympics underscores need for congressional action for new antibiotics Burr pledges to retire after one more Senate term MORE (R-Utah), Mazie HironoMazie HironoOvernight Finance: Senate sends Puerto Rico bill to Obama | Treasury, lawmakers to meet on tax rules | Obama hits Trump on NAFTA | Fed approves most banks' capital plans Senate Dems pledge to keep fighting over Zika Senators to Obama: Investigate whether Pentagon misled Congress MORE (D-Hawaii) and Mark KirkMark KirkNBA pulls All-Star Game from NC over bathroom law GOP groups scale back support for Sen. Johnson Top GOP senator: Trump will have little effect on Senate races MORE (R-Ill.) all met with Xi. On the House side, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attended.
Because of these ongoing tensions, Friday’s agreement was a somewhat surprising turn of events. It came only weeks after the White House was reportedly on the brink of slapping Chinese companies with economic sanctions over their hacking practices.
The threat led to rumblings that Xi might even cancel his trip if the penalties actually hit ahead of the state visit.
Several Republican presidential candidates wanted Obama to beat him to it and downgrade or cancel the event altogether, in protest of China’s cyberspace behavior and other trade discrepancies, human rights concerns and territorial disputes.
But many believe the threat brought China to the table for the discussions that led to Friday’s agreement.
The deal “could prove to be a first step toward ending this practice and protecting American individuals and businesses,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseWhy Kaine is the right choice for Clinton Report: More, stronger cyber attacks to flood networks Senate Dems push Obama for more Iran transparency MORE (D-R.I.), who pressed Chinese leaders on the topic during a trip to the Asian country in 2013.
“Could” is the optimal word, though. Few lawmakers believe China will actually follow through on its pronouncements.
“In light of its many long-running cyber theft enterprises, there is little reason to believe China will live up to its commitments,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). “These cyberattacks will almost certainly continue until the Obama administration puts forward a credible deterrence policy.”
For many, sanctions are the start of that deterrence policy. Cyber policy specialists said Friday that such penalties are likely now on ice for at least a few weeks or months.
“While I hope that the ministerial-level talks between our countries will help preclude sanctions from being necessary, America must protect our businesses from foreign threats,” said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who co-chairs the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus.
Sen. Tom CarperTom CarperCentrist Dems wary of public option push Retailers are shirking consumer data security responsibilities GMO labeling bill advances in the Senate over Dem objections MORE (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, preached caution to his colleagues.
“I know some of my colleagues will say that this agreement doesn’t do enough,” he said. “But we must start somewhere and this is more than a good start.”