Sunday, June 2, 2013

China, US agree to talks on cyber theft and espionage

Cyber warrior: Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo responds to US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel's allegations of cyber espionage.

Cyber warrior: Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo responds to US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel's allegations of cyber espionage. Photo: AFP

The US and China have agreed to hold regular, high-level talks on how to set standards of behaviour for cyber security and commercial espionage - the first diplomatic effort to defuse the tensions over what the US says is a daily barrage of computer break-ins and theft of corporate and government secrets.

The talks will begin in July. On Friday, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are scheduled to hold an unusual, informal summit meeting in Rancho Mirage, California, that could set the tone for their relationship and help them confront chronic tensions, such as the nuclear threat from North Korea.

US officials do not expect the process to immediately yield a significant reduction in the daily cyber intrusions from China. General Keith Alexander, head of the US Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, has said the attacks have resulted in the ''greatest transfer of wealth in history''. Hackers have stolen a variety of secrets, including negotiating strategies and schematics for next-generation fighter jets.

''It is a serious issue that cannot simply be swatted away with talking points,'' said a senior US official, who added that the meetings would focus primarily on the theft of intellectual property from US companies.


The meeting may have implications for Australia, where a report in May said cyber attacks, allegedly originating in China, compromised plans for the new intelligence headquarters in Canberra. Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has since voiced support for a global pact aimed at regulating cyber spying.

In the face of US accusations, China has insisted it is a victim of cyber attacks, not a perpetrator, and Chinese officials have denied the extensive evidence gathered by the Pentagon and private security experts that a unit of the People's Liberation Army, Unit 61398, outside Shanghai, is behind many of the most sophisticated attacks.

On Saturday, after Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke of a ''growing threat of cyber intrusions'' at a conference in Singapore, in comments directed at China, a Chinese general gave a tart response about the growing US military presence in Asia.

Cyber security issues loom large between the US and China because they go to the heart of the economic relationship between the two countries, even more so now that previous sources of friction, such as China's foreign exchange policies, have eased in the past year.

Chinese academics and industrialists say that if China is to maintain its annual economic growth rate of 7-8 per cent, it needs a steady inflow of new technology. That could make the Chinese reluctant to cut back on the systematic theft of intellectual property.

In return, the Chinese will press the Americans on their use of cyber weapons. While there is no evidence they have been used against China, the sophisticated cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear program are often cited by the Chinese news media and military journals as evidence that Washington, too, uses cyberspace for strategic advantage.

The talks over computer hacking will start as part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting of Chinese and US officials on a broad range of issues.

New York Times/Fairfax Media
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