Chinese President Xi Jinping is prepared to start a “high-level” cybersecurity dialogue with the United States.
“China is ready to set up a high-level joint dialogue mechanism with the United States on fighting cyber crimes,” the Chinese leader said during a speech Tuesday night at a dinner in Seattle co-hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
If the dialogue comes to fruition, it would be the first official, ongoing cyber talks between the two countries since China quit a joint working group in May 2014 following the Justice Department indictment of five members of the Chinese military for hacking the U.S.
“China is a staunch defender of cybersecurity. It is also a victim of hacking,” said Xi during the first stop on his U.S. trip this week that will culminate with an official state visit in Washington.
There have been indications in recent months that China and the U.S. were potentially coming back to the table on cybersecurity.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in April said it was working with its Chinese counterpart to establish a joint cyber dialogue. The announcement came at the end of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s multi-day visit to China.
More recently, Beijing officials came to the table to discuss potential cyber norms with White House officials after the Obama administration indicated it was preparing to levy sanctions against Chinese companies and individuals for pilfering U.S. corporate secrets.
The two sides have reportedly created the tentative framework of a deal that would define the rules of cyber warfare. Under the agreement, neither country would be the first to launch a cyberattack on the other’s critical infrastructure during peacetime.
But Xi’s comments hinted at another potential line of talks, perhaps similar to cyber pacts the U.S. government has recently signed with other allies that focus on sharing cyber threat data between law enforcement agencies.
“The international community should, on the basis of mutual respect and mutual trust, work together to build a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative cyberspace,” Xi said.
White House officials have said they expect to work with China during the state visit on developing consensus international cyber norms.
“We believe very strongly that the U.S. and China both have an interest in investing in clear international norms as it relates to cyber activity,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, during a Tuesday conference call with reporters.
But considerable cyber-related tensions remain between the two sides, especially after massive hacks at the Office of Personnel Management, which exposed over 20 million people’s sensitive data, were widely blamed on Chinese hackers.
“We and our companies continue to have serious concerns about an overall lack of legal and regulatory transparency, inconsistent protection of intellectual property, discriminatory cyber and technology policies and, more generally, the lack of a level playing field across a range of sectors,” said Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, speaking at the same dinner.
The White House is also under significant pressure to take a tougher approach with Beijing officials.
American businesses say China’s commercial cyber espionage is slowly eroding their global competitive edge and are pressuring the government to punish the Asian power. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are trying to force Obama’s hand on the issue.
Xi defended his country’s record, categorically denying it was involved in, or tacitly allowed, commercial espionage.
“The Chinese government will not, in whatever form, engage in commercial thefts or encourage or support such attempts by anyone,” he said. “Both commercial cyber theft and hacking against government networks are crimes that must be punished in accordance with law and relevant international treaties.”
The Chinese leader will continue his West Coast swing Wednesday, attending a much-touted tech forum tomorrow with many of Silicon Valley’s top executives.