US plans 'unprecedented' sanctions against China over hacks

Sanctions -- should they go ahead -- could land as early as mid-September.

The Obama administration could impose "unprecedented" sanctions against Beijing in as little as two weeks, in retaliation for a string of commercial cyberattacks, according to a report.

The Washington Post on Sunday, citing US officials who spoke anonymously, said the US would issue sanctions on the basis that Chinese companies have benefited from the cyber-theft of US trade secrets, such as "search engine source code" and other intellectual property, and private corporate and trade secrets.

The report said the administration has "not yet decided whether to issue these sanctions, but a final call is expected soon."

A White House spokesperson declined to comment to the Post.

It comes just weeks ahead of a state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to Washington in September. A White House spokesperson last week confirmed cybersecurity concerns will "no doubt" be on the agenda.

It will be the first time since April where new powers were introduced that these powers have been used. The US has the power to freeze bank accounts and financial assets, and property of those said to be involved in hacking attacks and international commercial espionage.

"It sends a signal to Beijing that the administration is going to start fighting back on economic espionage, and it sends a signal to the private sector that we're on your team," one of the US official said.

However, the Obama administration is said to be drawing a line between hacks that have benefited Chinese private businesses, and those benefited by the Chinese government, which like the US and other nations spies on a regular basis as part of its counter-espionage efforts.

Administration officials have privately blamed Beijing for the devastating attack on the Office of Personnel Management earlier this year, which vets prospective federal workers for classified work. But the sanctions will not be in retaliation for the attack, as officials said the attack was "judged as having been carried out for traditional intelligence purposes," the paper said.

More than 22 million records on current and former federal employees, including vetting and background data, was stolen in the heist.

The FBI has not publicly commented on who was behind the attack.