Top U.S. and Chinese officials will meet this week in Washington for the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on July 10-11, hoping to build on the progress that was made during last month’s informal summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. Although the two sides will discuss a host of issues, including North Korea, Asian maritime disputes, climate change, and investment opportunities, cyber security is likely to be at the center of attention this year.
Unfortunately, cyber security is the one issue on which the two countries are unlikely to find much common ground. Earlier in the year, it appeared that China was on the defensive after reports emerged that a particular military complex outside of Shanghai, known as P.L.A. unit 61398, was responsible for attacks on more than 100 American defense and commercial companies. In May, President Obama’s former Director of Intelligence and former Ambassador to China likewise found that the Chinese were responsible for 70% of the theft of corporate intellectual property and trade secrets in America, totaling more than $300 billion.
Then suddenly, much to the pleasure of the Chinese, Edward Snowden emerged out of the shadows to reveal the extent of America’s domestic and international surveillance programs, many of which were reportedly directed against the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong. So now, heading into the Dialogue this week, China is no longer up against a wall. Along with much of the world, it can accuse America of double standards and carrying out cyber operations that are just as extensive as China’s, if not more so. In the days after the revelations, the Chinese highlighted this seeming hypocrisy, when a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said: “I’d like to advise these people to hold up a mirror, reflect and take care of their own situation first.”
Overcoming this impasse isn’t impossible, but both sides will need to accept some of the blame if they want to make any headway. Most importantly, America must acknowledge the extent of its operations and cease using rhetoric that depicts itself as the victim. Even now, despite ongoing revelations that underscore the scope of the country’s espionage programs, the U.S. is insisting that its surveillance programs are different in nature from China’s cyber activities. This argument, although it has an element of truth to it, is falling on deaf ears not only in China but also around the world.
On the other hand, China cannot hide behind Snowden’s allegations to justify its own illicit cyber activities. Despite having a momentary reprieve, China’s attempts to highlight America’s hypocritical internet policies will eventually backfire. Chinese cyber theft, which will remain high on the U.S.’s list of priorities long after the Snowden affair is over, has the potential to endanger Sino-American relations in other important policy areas. This is the last thing Beijing wants or needs.
For the moment, cyber attacks are unlikely to affect many of the issues that will be discussed at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue this week. Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is still a priority for both China and America, just as maintaining solid economic relations are essential for their future growth. However, regarding cyber security, the two countries should stop pointing fingers at each other and just admit that they are both culpable. Otherwise, the world’s two superpowers will find it increasingly difficult to cooperate with each other—and they’ll continue looking like two major hypocrites in the eyes of the international community.
By Roger Moore
Roger is a graduate student at Georgia State University and a current intern.