As the US prepares to meet with China next week, recent leaks by Edward Snowden appear to have put cybersecurity talks in jeopardy.

From The Hill:

The Obama administration had hoped to press China on the issue during the fifth round of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue. Instead, it finds itself on the defensive amid former contractor Edward Snowden’s allegations that the National Security Agency has been spying not only on the Chinese government but on universities, students and businesses as well.

“The U.S. in the cyber arena is trying to draw a bright red line,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a former senior director for Asia at the White House who’s now with the Brookings China Center. “I think the Snowden revelations clearly give China an increased opportunity to muddy the waters.”

President Obama put newly elected Chinese leader Xi Jinping on notice when he hosted him at Sunnylands in California last month that the United States wants an end to Chinese hacking. Next week’s summit was expected to be an opportunity for officials from the State and Treasury departments to make concrete progress on that front.

“Effectively the U.S. position is, everyone conducts espionage. We don’t object to Chinese espionage, they shouldn’t object to ours,” Lieberthal said in a call with reporters previewing next week’s meeting. “But the U.S. does not do commercial espionage to benefit our own firms’ competitive position; the Chinese side does, and we insist that they stop.

Last month, Snowden shared information with a Hong Kong news outlet alleging that the US has conducted hacking attacks on China, including on Tsinghua University.  The claims emboldened China, as its state sponsored media capitalized on the now publicized information to accuse the US of hypocrisy.

But as I’ve covered previously at Legal Insurrection, the cyber-relationship between the US and China isn’t so black and white.

The reality is, the two countries have been engaged in an often tense back and forth exchange of cyber espionage for years.  Over the last several years, the US has ramped up defensive and offensive cybersecurity operations, in response to cyber espionage attacks from China on US national defense and economic targets, among others.

In May, the US increased pressure on China to address cyberattacks, after reports released by the Pentagon and a private security company revealed that Chinese hackers were targeting computer systems of US government and private businesses for China’s economic and competitive gain.  There are differences between what’s done for a nation’s personal gain versus what’s done as a measure of national security.

Snowden’s public revelations have prompted China to portray itself as the victim of cyberattacks, without providing any context of the full scale of issues between it and the US, as can be observed in the state-sponsored Global Post (via the Washington Post).

“We have realized the United States’ aggressiveness in cyberspace, we have realized that nine Internet companies have assisted the U.S. government in intelligence outsourcing,” said the paper known for a nationalist stance. “We have realized their hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another, and we have realized their ruthlessness in doing what they please with no regard for other people.”

“China is a rising power, and it deserves corresponding respect from the United States,” it said.

Nonetheless, the two sides are expected to address the topic of cybersecurity, but the US is certainly not standing on the same ground as it had been in May.


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