Congress skeptical China will adhere to cyber promises

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.

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But those same members also said they were “skeptical” that China would adhere to its promise and vowed to closely oversee the agreement’s implementation.

“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 Emiel FeinsteinFormer US attorneys urge support for Trump nominee The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Republicans see some daylight in midterm polling Senate panel clears bill to bolster probes of foreign investment deals 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 Scott GardnerSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Trump makes Manchin top target for midterms Wyden: I object to Trump’s DHS cyber nomination over demands for Stingray information 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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGiuliani: White House wants briefing on classified meeting over Russia probe GOP senators introduce Trump's plan to claw back billion in spending The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Trump now says Korea summit could still happen June 12 MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (D-Nev.), Feinstein, Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Trump now says Korea summit could still happen June 12 The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — The art of walking away from the deal Overnight Finance: Trump signs Dodd-Frank rollback | Snubs key Dems at ceremony | Senate confirms banking regulator | Lawmakers lash out on Trump auto tariffs MORE (R-Utah), Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoConservative justices signal willingness to uphold travel ban Former Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii dies at 93 Dems to top DOJ officials: Publicly promise not to interfere in Mueller's probe MORE (D-Hawaii) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkThis week: Trump heads to Capitol Hill Trump attending Senate GOP lunch Tuesday High stakes as Trump heads to Hill 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 WhitehouseSenate Dems to Mnuchin: Don't index capital gains to inflation EPA extends comment period on controversial science transparency rule House easily passes prison reform bill backed by Trump 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 CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperHillicon Valley: Sweeping new data rules take effect | Facebook, Google already hit with complaints | Schumer slams reported ZTE deal | Senators look to save cyber post | Dem wants answers about Trump's phone security Senator asks Pentagon again for info on Trump's cellphone security Senate Dems to Mnuchin: Don't index capital gains to inflation 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.”