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 FeinsteinSenators ask for removal of tariffs on EU food, wine, spirits: report Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Yates spars with GOP at testy hearing 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 GardnerMcConnell warns control of Senate 'could go either way' in November Senate Democrats ask Trump to withdraw controversial public lands nominee The Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement 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 McConnellOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate Democrats say White House isn't budging in coronavirus relief stalemate MORE (R-Ky.), Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidKamala Harris makes history — as a Westerner McConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill Kamala Harris to young Black women at conference: 'I want you to be ambitious' MORE (D-Nev.), Feinstein, Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs MORE (R-Utah), Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw MORE (D-Hawaii) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' 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 Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Democrats seek to exploit Trump-GOP tensions in COVID-19 talks Liability shield fight threatens to blow up relief talks 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 CarperNot a pretty picture: Money laundering and America's art market OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat | White House pushed to release documents on projects expedited due to coronavirus | Trump faces another challenge to rewrite of bedrock environmental law NEPA White House pushed to release documents on projects expedited due to coronavirus 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.”