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 FeinsteinHuman rights leaders warn against confirming Gorsuch Feinstein sees slipping support among California voters: poll Schumer a no on Gorsuch, will urge Dems to oppose 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 GardnerRepeal of Obama drilling rule stalls in the Senate Colorado Dem at the center of Gorsuch confirmation fight Gorsuch sails on day one, but real test is Tuesday 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 McConnellOvernight Healthcare: Trump threatens to leave ObamaCare in place if GOP bill fails Senate GOP hedges on ObamaCare repeal timeline Chao: Trump tapped into 'a strain of anxiety,' 'fear' MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidThis obscure Senate rule could let VP Mike Pence fully repeal ObamaCare once and for all Sharron Angle to challenge GOP rep in Nevada Fox's Watters asks Trump whom he would fire: Baldwin, Schumer or Zucker MORE (D-Nev.), Feinstein, Orrin HatchOrrin HatchOvernight Finance: US preps cases linking North Korea to Fed heist | GOP chair says Dodd-Frank a 2017 priority | Chamber pushes lawmakers on Trump's trade pick | Labor nominee faces Senate US Chamber urges quick vote on USTR nominee Lighthizer Live coverage: Day three of Supreme Court nominee hearing MORE (R-Utah), Mazie HironoMazie HironoLive coverage: Day three of Supreme Court nominee hearing Live coverage: Day two of Supreme Court nominee hearing Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward MORE (D-Hawaii) and Mark KirkMark KirkObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood GOP senator won't vote to defund Planned Parenthood 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 WhitehouseLive coverage: Day three of Supreme Court nominee hearing Dems land few punches on Gorsuch Overnight Regulation: Dems punch back in fight over CEO pay rule 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 CarperOvernight Energy: Ethanol groups prep for fight over mandate Dems ask Pruitt to ‘correct the record’ on personal email use Senate Dems introduce bill to rescind Trump border wall, immigration order 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.”