US to push Beijing on cybersecurity talks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 10:44pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 10:44pm

The United States will next month urge China to resume discussions on cybersecurity that were abruptly suspended after the Americans charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into US companies to steal trade secrets, officials said.

Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the US would push for a resumption of the cyber working group when cabinet-level officials meet at the annual US-China strategic and economic dialogue in Beijing in the second week of July.

I have no trouble in enlisting Secretary [of State John] Kerry’s efforts

After the indictments against the five officers were unsealed last month, Beijing pulled the plug on the group that had been set up a year ago in what Washington viewed as a diplomatic coup after US President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping held a summit in California, aiming to set relations on a positive track.

Those ties have come under growing strain, also because of China's assertive actions in the disputed South and East China seas. Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia, reiterated those concerns on Thursday, saying the US views it as essential that China shows greater restraint and uses diplomacy to manage its differences on territorial issues.

Asian nations, particularly treaty allies like Japan and the Philippines, look to the US to counter China's increasingly muscular actions, but some in the region have voiced doubts about whether the second-term Obama administration can follow through on its commitment to focus on Asia-Pacific, because of its preoccupation with the chaos in the Middle East.

Russel said Asia remains a strategic US priority - even as Washington mulls some form of military action to combat the rapid advances of Islamic militants in Iraq who now straddle the border with Syria.

He said: "The fact that events conspired to demand high-level US attention in the Middle East or elsewhere is simply a fact of life … The strategic imperative, though, that's made the Asia-Pacific region a priority for us in security, economic and political terms, is unaffected by the short-term demands of crises here and there.

"I have no trouble in enlisting Secretary [of State John] Kerry's efforts on our agenda in the region, and that applies to the president and vice-president as well."

Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will lead the US delegation at the talks in Beijing, which are an annual fixture and viewed as important in forging a more co-operative relationship with Beijing, notwithstanding frictions between them and China's growing challenge to America's post-war military predominance in the Asia-Pacific region. The two sides will discuss issues including turmoil in the Middle East, North Korea's nuclear programme, co-operation on climate change, and the US will raise human rights. They will also address economic and trade issues, including progress on a bilateral investment treaty that China agreed to negotiate in earnest at last year's talks.

While the cyber working group is on hold, Russel said the US would raise concerns over cyber-enabled theft of corporate data and intellectual property that the US contends is shared with Chinese state-owned enterprises for commercial gain.

"That's an economic problem as well as a bilateral problem and that kind of behaviour risks undermining the support for the US-China relationship among the US and international business community … It's a problem we believe the Chinese must and can address," Russel said.

Although the revelations from former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of US surveillance tactics have embarrassed Washington - leaving it open to accusations of hypocrisy when it accuses others of cyberespionage - the Obama administration has taken an increasingly trenchant stance on intrusions from China.

The indictment accused the Chinese officers of targeting US makers of nuclear and solar technology, stealing confidential business information and internal communications for competitive advantage. But after the indictments were unsealed, the five men were not placed on an international list of wanted criminals. There is no evidence China would entertain a formal request by the US to extradite the officers. It has rejected the charges and demanded they be withdrawn.

Russel said the US would talk to the Chinese in Beijing about the prospect of resuming the cybergroup, calling its work "useful and important" - although little of substance reportedly came from its deliberations since it first met in July last year.

"We are ready," Russel said, but wouldn't speculate on whether the Chinese are.