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China-US Cyber Agreements: Has Beijing Outmaneuvered Washington?

Sep 30 , 2015

The United States has been focusing much of its cyber diplomacy around criticism of China’s espionage. This U.S. policy effort might be called the “Fort Meade defense,” after the site of NSA headquarters in Maryland. These criticisms peaked this month with U.S. threats to impose sanctions for civil sector commercial espionage committed by China using cyber assets.

In his visit to the United States last week, President Xi Jinping of China brilliantly outmaneuvered the United States in the Fort Meade defense by declaring, with all of the diplomatic and international legal authority that a head of state wields, that his government did not collect “commercial intelligence.” After those comments, any conversation with Obama about stopping such practices was bound to be surreal and unproductive.

“Commercial intelligence” is defined by the White House as intelligence collected “with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.” This differs from economic espionage, which most states undertake to protect and advance national economic interests.

It is declared U.S. policy to undertake economic espionage, especially when it relates to the science and technology (S&T) capabilities of other countries. Thus, when the Washington Post reported that Xi agreed during his meeting with Obama that China would agree to abide by the norm against “economic cyber spying,” it used a clearly incorrect term. China has agreed no such thing.

Moreover, there is no international legal norm of any kind against cyber espionage if the act is confined to merely collecting of information.

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