US, China set for first high-level cyber talks in over a year

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The U.S. and China on Tuesday will come to the table for their first official cybersecurity talks since the Asian power pulled out of a joint working group over a year ago.

The high-level discussions in Washington, D.C., which will include Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and China’s Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun, aren’t expected to produce any major outcomes. But the mere fact that the meeting is taking place is seen as a positive step in rebuilding the fractured cyber relations between the two digital adversaries.

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“I think early signs are positive,” said Adam Segal, a Chinese cyber policy expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Talking is better than not talking.”

The focus of the meetings will be the recent U.S.-China agreement to end commercial espionage. The deal was struck during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit in September. In the agreement, both countries pledged to neither engage in, nor knowingly support, the digital theft of business secrets.

But before either side can assess compliance, there are a number of questions that must be hammered out. What exactly is commercial espionage? What does “knowingly support” mean? What evidence is required to prove a country has broken the agreement? How will the two countries coordinate on cyber investigations?

Although DHS officials have been mostly mum on this week's agenda, these definitional and logistical challenges are likely to comprise the core of the meetings, which span Tuesday and Wednesday.

“My sense is that there's going to be a lot of focus on the mechanics and seeing how the process is going to work, of how the two sides are going to talk to each other,” Segal said.

It could be another few months before the two sides agree on more tangible metrics or guidelines to officially adhere to September’s deal, several experts agreed.

These conversations are occurring amid mounting pressure on the Obama administration to curtail China’s digital behavior more swiftly.

Analysts say the Asian power’s commercial espionage is costing the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year. And industry groups insist it’s slowly eroding America’s competitive edge in the global market. Beijing is widely suspected of feeding pilfered intellectual property to Chinese businesses.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail have also used the rampant digital theft as a major talking point to claim Obama isn’t acting aggressively enough toward China.

Just weeks after the September deal was unveiled, reports emerged that China hadn’t stopped stealing digital secrets. More recently, head of U.S. counterintelligence operations Bill Evanina said in a briefing that there was “no indication” in the private sector “that anything has changed” regarding China’s corporate espionage.

These incidents have only fueled skepticism about the agreement and will likely color the tone of this week’s dialogue, several policy experts said. 

Doubters have also noted the deal would do nothing to address Beijing's digital snooping on U.S. government agencies. Chinese hackers are suspected in the intrusions at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which exposed over 20 million federal workers' sensitive data and roiled the government.

Administration officials on Monday cautioned that both forcing and assessing a change in behavior is a long-term project.

Several unnamed officials also told The Washington Post that the Chinese military had reduced its commercial espionage efforts in the wake of the Justice Department’s 2014 indictment of five People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers.

“A lot of these things just take time, more time than I think people realize,” a U.S. official told The Post.

The DOJ charges spurred China to pull out of joint cybersecurity working group with the U.S.

When the two sides officially resume negotiations on Tuesday, it will be roughly 18 months since the working group fell apart.

Segal said the Obama administration probably has a few months remaining to settle on a tangible metric that shows whether China is abiding by its September promise.

“Outside of six months" since the agreement, he said, "they’re going to have a hard time convincing people that China is complying."