December date set for first China-US cyber meetings

The United States and China will hold the first ministerial-level dialogue on cybersecurity in Washington, D.C. on December 1 and 2 of this year, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday.

Regular bilateral meetings were part of a package of agreements — including an anti-hacking pact — reached during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official state visit in September.

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“As a means of ensuring that these commitments are upheld, we agreed to a regular, ministerial level dialogue involving on the U.S. side, the Secretary of Homeland Security — that’s me — and the attorney general,” Johnson said at a Council of Foreign Relations summit.

The meetings will be the two countries’ first official channel on cybersecurity since China quit a working group over last year’s indictment of five members of the Chinese military for hacking the United States.

During the state visit, President Obama and Xi agreed that neither the U.S. nor the Chinese government will “conduct or knowingly support cyber theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage,” Obama said during a joint press conference in September.

Since then, speculation has swirled around whether China will keep its word, with skeptical lawmakers pressuring President Obama to retaliate for the barrage of intrusions into U.S. firms and federal agencies.

Research from the security firm CrowdStrike found that hackers linked to the Chinese government have continued to infiltrate American companies in the three weeks following the deal.

Seven of the recently hacked companies were technology or pharmaceutical firms, “where the primary benefit of the intrusions seems clearly aligned to facilitate theft of intellectual property and trade secrets, rather than to conduct traditional national-security related intelligence collection, which the agreement does not prohibit,” CEO Dmitri Alperovitch wrote in a blog post announcing the findings.

But Alperovitch insisted that the report doesn’t necessarily indicate that the agreement has been a failure, noting that it might take some time for China to dismantle its espionage apparatus.

Other security and policy experts agree that Beijing may not be able to unwind its sprawling network of digital pilferers overnight.

Security firm FireEye said it has also seen ongoing evidence of Chinese hacking but insisted that it is “premature to conclude that activity during this short time frame constitutes economic espionage.”

Other reports indicate that the Chinese government quietly arrested several hackers at the request of the U.S. government days before the state visit.

The hackers were part of a list drawn up by administration officials that identified cyber thieves who stole trade secrets from U.S. firms to pass along to Chinese competitors.

Officials are now waiting to see whether the Chinese government will go forward with prosecutions, or whether the arrests will be nothing more than an empty gesture intended to diffuse tensions with the United States in advance of the state visit.

The U.S. has not laid aside the possibility of sanctions, but policy experts say the administration will likely wait to see if the Chinese government holds up its end of the bargain.

“What I’ve said to President Xi and what I say to the American people, the question now is: Are words followed by actions?” Obama said in September. “We will be watching carefully to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area.”

Johnson echoed those sentiments on Wednesday.

“Time will tell if the Chinese government’s commitments in writing are matched in action,” Johnson said.