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 FeinsteinSenate to vote Friday on Trump's defense picks Senate seeks deal on Trump nominees Manning commutation sparks Democratic criticism 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 GardnerTrump applauds congressional allies as he kicks off inaugural festivities Overnight Tech: Tech listens for clues at Sessions hearing | EU weighs expanding privacy rule | Senators blast Backpage execs Overnight Tech: Trump meets Alibaba founder | Uber to make some data public | GOP Lawmakers tapped for key tech panels 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 Finance: Scoop – Trump team eyes dramatic spending cuts | Treasury pick survives stormy hearing Mnuchin: Tax reform shouldn't add to the deficit Trump taps NY Jets owner to be UK Ambassador MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidThe DC bubble is strangling the DNC Dems want Sessions to recuse himself from Trump-Russia probe Ryan says Trump, GOP 'in complete sync' on ObamaCare MORE (D-Nev.), Feinstein, Orrin HatchOrrin HatchCongressional leaders unite to protect consumers Mnuchin weathers stormy confirmation hearing Obama tells Congress: Only 41 detainees remain at Guantanamo MORE (R-Utah), Mazie HironoMazie HironoOvernight Energy: Perry makes his case to lead Energy Dept. | Dems alarmed by spending cut plans Dems blast Trump plans for deep spending cuts Warren burns Mnuchin over failure to disclose assets MORE (D-Hawaii) and Mark KirkMark KirkGOP senator: Don't link Planned Parenthood to ObamaCare repeal Republicans add three to Banking Committee Juan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama 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 WhitehouseFive takeaways from Pruitt's EPA hearing Health pick’s trades put STOCK Act in spotlight Dems prepare to face off with Trump's pick to lead EPA 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 CarperPruitt says his EPA will work with the states Dems prepare to face off with Trump's pick to lead EPA Justice, FBI to be investigated over Clinton probes 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.”