Obama, Xi reach anti-hacking agreement, but skepticism remains

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday on the South Lawn of the White House.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday on the South Lawn of the White House. AP

The United States and China have joined forces to fight global warming, forge a historic agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programs and respond to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

But despite that partnership _ on full display at the White House Friday when President Barack Obama hosted an elaborate state visit for Chinese President Xi Jinping _ the countries remain at odds on cybersecurity, one of the biggest disagreements between the world’s two largest economies.

Obama and Xi announced an agreement not to conduct or support hacking of intellectual property, including confidential business information for commercial advantage, a long-awaited first step, but cybersecurity experts say the pact is limited in scope and does not outline how the countries will enforce their pact.

Even as he touted the agreement, Obama threatened to lodge economic sanctions against China if it does not follow its words with actions.

Greg Morrisett, dean of Cornell University’s Computing and Information Sciences, said Obama and Xi must be willing to further tackle government-sponsored cyber attacks and commercial espionage if they hope to prevent future cyberwars.

“On the one hand, it’s important to have international cooperation for going after criminal organizations that span national boundaries,” Morrisett said. “But it’s much more important that China and the U.S. come to some agreements regarding government-sponsored intrusion, surveillance, and theft that can lead to serious destabilization.”

Obama welcomed Xi to the White House with a formal arrival ceremony on the South Lawn, complete with a red carpet, a military honor guard and a 21-gun salute. Hundreds of people, including many young children, waved small U.S. and Chinese flags. Outside, competing groups of protestors and supporters gathered in LaFayette Park.

Obama and Xi held a series of private meetings at the White House about a host of issues, including national security, wildlife trafficking and climate change before answering questions at a mid-day news conference in the Rose Garden. They outlined a joint vision on climate change in which Xi announced he would adopt a cap-and-trade program to help cut back on his nation’s dangerous levels of pollution.

In the weeks leading to the visit, some Republicans had called on Obama to cancel the festivities they say he should not have scheduled in the first place.

“I know that some people question why we host China at all. That is a dangerous and short-sighted view,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said. “If America chose to remove itself from China, we would only ensure that the Chinese are not challenged on the issues where we differ.”

But while the two nations have engaged on several key issues, the United States still views China as an economic rival, an aggressive neighbor that’s picked territorial fights with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan and that holds vastly different views on human rights, military ambitions and cybersecurity.

For more than a decade, China’s military has dedicated itself to advanced cyberwarfare, according to experts.

Just this week, the Obama administration announced that hackers who stole security clearance data on millions of U.S. government employees last year successfully accessed about 5.6 million fingerprint records, 4.5 million more than initially reported.

Some U.S. officials have privately blamed the hack, which officials call one of the biggest security breaches in U.S. history, on Chinese government hackers, but they have avoided saying so publicly.

White House officials say they are most concerned about government-sponsored, cyber-enabled theft of corporate secrets for financial gain.

In a recent report to Congress, the Pentagon called China’s activities in cyberspace a massive military program.

“China is focusing on counter-space, offensive cyber operations, and electronic warfare capabilities meant to deny adversaries the advantages of modern, informationized warfare,” the report said. 

Obama said at the news conference that he pressed Xi about cybersecurity, as he has every time they have spoken, though they did not speak about specific cases.

“I raised, once again, our rising concerns about growing cyber threats to American companies and American citizens,” he said. “I indicated that it has to stop.”

Xi denied any involvement in recent attacks on government and private computers that the U.S. while speaking to business leaders in Seattle this week.

He pledged cooperation Friday. “China and the United States are two major cyber countries and we should strengthen dialogue and cooperation,” he said. “Confrontation and friction are not the right choice for both sides.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat ranking on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Xi’s commitment is long overdue.

“I remain skeptical that China will deliver on this promise, and believe it will be necessary to impose a series of increasing consequences on Chinese businesses that continue to profit from the theft of American research and development,” he said.

Despite a flurry of meetings on the issue in Washington and Beijing, the Obama administration could still punish China for cyberattacks against U.S. government and private-sector computers and networks through economic sanctions or even criminal charges.

In 2014, the Justice Department indicted five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, accusing them of stealing data from U.S. businesses to benefit Chinese companies. .

But data privacy expert Fred Cate, professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and an internationally recognized specialist in information privacy and security, said Friday’s agreement is a good first start.

“It is an important first step towards identifying common ground between the U.S. and Chinese approaches to cybersecurity, and a significant improvement over the U.S. administration’s prior approach of ‘naming and shaming’ the Chinese publicly and pursuing meaningless criminal indictments against five Chinese army officers for allegedly perpetrating cyberattacks,” he said.

Late Friday, Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama, were scheduled to honor Xi and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, at a lavish state dinner in the East Room with a four-course mail of poached lobster and grilled lamb, hundreds of pink roses and a guest list of 200 bold-faced names dressed in tuxedos and designer ballgowns.