U.S. and Chinese officials met in Washington on Monday for the first talks between the two nations on the contentious issue of cyber attacks and cyber theft of intellectual property.
The first round of the cyber working group, part of the larger U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, concluded Monday afternoon. The U.S. side was led by Christopher Painter, State Department coordinator for cyber issues, along with Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant defense secretary.
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"We're hopeful [the talks] will enable the two sides to share perspectives on international laws and norms in cyberspace, raise concerns as needed, develop processes for future cooperation and set the tone for future constructive and cooperative bilateral dialogues," State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said.
The subject also will be raised by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on Tuesday during the dialogue meeting and later in the week by Secretary of State John Kerry, said senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the meeting.
Few details of Monday’s meeting were disclosed by the officials.
"We had constructive discussions with our Chinese counterparts at the cyber working group today on a range of cyber issues," said one official who took part in the closed-door meetings.
One topic included "norms of behavior in cyberspace" and both sides made proposals to increase cooperation and build greater understanding and transparency during the talks, the official said.
Following Chinese demand, the U.S. side agreed to separate the issue of what the official called "cyber-enabled economic theft," from military cyber warfare and espionage issues.
"We expect that this meeting will be the start of substantive and sustained discussions between the United States and China on cyber issues," the official said.
U.S. industry principals have been pressing President Barack Obama and his administration to do more to confront China on its aggressive activities in cyberspace. China has been engaged in massive cyber attacks against both government and private sector computer networks for at least 10 years.
Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA), said recently that China is one of the major players in cyber espionage and reconnaissance.
"I think our nation has been significantly impacted with intellectual property, the theft of intellectual property by China and others," Alexander said on ABC’s "This Week" last month. "That is the most significant transfer of wealth in history. And it goes right back to your initial question: Who is taking our information? It’s one of the things I believe the American people would expect me to know. That’s where my mission is. Who’s doing this to us and why?"
Alexander told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on June 18 that the United States and China need to solve the issue of cyber attacks and theft and "then look at ways to move forward."
Alexander confirmed China is engaged in cyber economic espionage and cyber attacks aimed at stealing both U.S. military and intelligence secrets.
The topic of cyber security was discussed during the summit meeting between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 8 in California.
Those talks were overshadowed by public disclosures of widespread NSA electronic surveillance and intelligence collection by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
China’s government, which frequently dismisses United States’ claims of cyber attacks and cyber espionage as baseless, seized on Snowden’s disclosures to accuse the United States of hypocrisy on the issue.
Snowden revealed that NSA conducted cyber intrusions into Chinese university computers and Internet backbone servers in China.
U.S. officials said the administration over the long term is seeking to conclude international agreements that would aim to codify "rules of the road" for cyber theft that could include sanctions against countries that violate the rules.
China’s military so far has refused to discuss cyber military operations with Pentagon officials. For China, cyber military operations remain one of the most secret elements of Chinese warfighting plans.
However, Chinese military officials have called for building up cyber warfare capabilities in response to the creation of the U.S. Cyber Command, a cyber defense and warfighting sub-unit of the Omaha-based U.S. Strategic Command.
Other security issues to be discussed at the talks this week are North Korea, Syria, Iran, and regional security issues. Earlier meetings of the State and Treasury Department sessions with China produced little in the way of substantive agreements.
China’s position at the working group talks was disclosed last month by Lu Jinghua, of the PLA Academy of Military Science, who wrote that U.S. accusations against China included calls for U.S. cyber attacks against China.
Lu issued a veiled threat stating that cooperation between the two countries will produce mutual benefits while "conflicts will do harm to both."
"Cyber threats can hardly be thoroughly fended off by one country on its own," Lu stated in the official military newspaper PLA Daily on June 15.
He added that tracking cyber attacks often must be conducted across borders with support for network managers, law enforcement, and security organs.
Lu said "international rules and systems" must be set up for a "healthy, fair and good cyber order." Lu listed the key themes expected to be raised during the working group meetings:
Cooperate in cracking down on cyber crimes.
Cooperate in dealing with cyber terrorist activities.
Cooperate in establishing cyber rules.
For cyber rules, Lu said the United States and China should discuss issues such as defining cyberspace, what software is considered a weapon, and what standards should be used to determine cyber attacks.
"On the basis of such definitions, both sides will, as a necessary step, establish information-sharing mechanisms for coping with cyber threats, draw up the ‘red line’ for cyber activities, and even set up a cyber hot line to prevent misjudgment," Lu said. "The ultimate objective of cooperation is to establish the cyber behavior norms commonly accepted by the international community."
However, Lu revealed what he said were fundamental differences between the United States and Chinese approaches to Internet security.
The United States, he stated, insists on keeping the Internet free and open while China regards cyber behavior as "similar to driving vehicles on roads, and only when all people observe certain rules can smooth driving be guaranteed."
Lu urged giving the United Nations authority over the Internet, a previous Chinese government position and one also shared by Russia.
The Chinese are opposed to what they regard as American Internet "dominance," he said and he sought to play down China’s cyber capabilities.
Security analysts have said cooperating with China on cyber security could result in assisting Chinese intelligence in learning methods and processes used by U.S. security agencies to identify and thwart cyber attacks and ultimately circumvent those efforts.