Cyber Détente with China

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that, beginning next month, the US and China will hold regular talks on cyber matters. The high-level discussions, labeled the first diplomatic initiative on the subject with China, will be part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the framework of annual meetings between Washington and Beijing.

The ultimate goal is to arrive at understandings with the Chinese. As a “senior American official involved in the negotiations” told the paper, “We need to get some norms and rules.”

Actually, we have long passed that stage. What we need to do at this point is stop Chinese cyber intrusions, cyber attacks, and cyber espionage, all part of what many suspect to be the most extensive cyber campaign conducted by one country against another

Administration officials, according to the Times, say they do not expect the talks will result in an immediate and significant reduction in Chinese attacks. And as Stanford University’s Tim Junio told the AP, “China benefits too much by stealing intellectual property from the US, so it’s really hard to imagine anyone convincing them to slow down.”

So what is the purpose of further talks? It’s not as if the Obama administration has not already broached the subject with Beijing. The president and various officials had numerous conversations with the Chinese during the first term, but the attacks increased dramatically in the middle of last year. This year, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey have all trooped to Beijing to discuss the issue with no apparent result. Despite the persistent effort to establish a cooperative relationship, the People’s Liberation Army reportedly ramped up its cyber attacks sometime around the beginning of April.  

As the Times reported in the middle of last month, the spike in attacks demonstrated that Obama’s “naming and shaming” approach did not work. Now he’s going back to an even less effective strategy of behind-closed-doors persuasion. The administration, therefore, is adopting tactics that have little chance of success even though cyber attacks and cyber espionage, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, now constitute America’s number one security threat.

Chinese leaders are ruthlessly pragmatic. They will not stop their cyber campaign until the costs of conducting it are greater than the benefits received. Yet the administration, which on some level realizes this, is loath to create real disincentives, such as the “last- ditch” proposal of the Blair-Huntsman commission to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese goods.

While the administration sticks with ineffective approaches, the “greatest transfer of wealth in history” continues to benefit China and injure America. So until the administration gives Beijing reasons to cease its cyber campaign, talking with the Chinese, no matter how well-intentioned on our part, will be a losing strategy.

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