China, US agree on cybercrime cooperation amid continued tension

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama say both countries agree not to support cyber espionage, but details are sketchy on what this means exactly, while discussions on cyberspying remain touchy.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

China and the US have mutually agreed that neither should support cyber espionage, but details on what exactly this involves are sketchy and discussions involving cyberspying remain touchy.

US President Barack Obama said he had reached a "common understanding" with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping that both sides would not "conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property". These included trade secrets or other confidential information that could be used for commercial advantage, Obama said, in a CBS News report.

In Washington this week for his state visit, Xi added that two economic powerhouses had pledged to abide by "norms of behaviour" in cyberspace.

No clear details on what this "agreement" entailed were provided at the joint media conference Friday held by the two heads of states, but Obama noted "significant progress" in agreeing to how their respective law enforcement would cooperate, exchange information, and track culprits involved in cybercrimes or cyberattacks.

He added that mutual cooperation was possible if both sides recognised there was a difference between "friendly competition and competition that tilts the playing field unfairly in one direction or another".

The US president further stressed that "our work is not yet done", and posed potential issues on whether promises would be adhered to. "The question now is: Are words followed by action?" he said.

Earlier this month, Obama had said his administration regarded cyber attacks an act of aggression that had to stop and was considering steps to address this. "We are preparing a number of actions that will indicate to the Chinese that this is just not a matter of us being mildly upset," he said.

He reiterated this warning during the joint briefing, noting that the US would apply sanctions "and whatever other tools we have in our toolkit" to stop cybercriminals "either retrospectively or prospectively".

In response, Xi urged against "politicising" the issue of cyberattacks and noted that China stood to lose more from cybercrime, as the market with less developed capabilities, reported The Guardian.

"Overall, the United States is the strongest country in terms of cyber strength, [while] China is the world's biggest country in terms of the number of web users," he said. "We have broad common interests, but we need to strengthen cooperation and avoid confrontation, and nor should we politicise this issue."

"Confrontation and friction are not the right choice for both sides," Xi said, through a translator.

Little mention was made on the issue of cyberspying and national security, which had long strained relationships between the two countries. The US has repeatedly accused Chinese networking equipment vendor, Huawei, of spying on behalf of its government, while the US National Security Agency (NSA) is said to have created backdoors to spy on servers located in Huawei's headquarters.

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