The seventh round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) concluded yesterday, and unsurprisingly an agreement on cyberspace was not among the 127 listed outcomes of the meeting. There was, however, in public comments from both Chinese and U.S. officials a small glimmer of hope of greater cooperation, though the way forward is unclear.
In the wake of the revelations of the hack of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the potential loss of 18 million social security numbers, cybersecurity cast a large shadow over the discussions. The White House has not ascribed the OPM attack to Beijing (if you want to know why, see here and here) and instead focused on the theft of intellectual property and business secrets. Vice President Joe Biden warned not only that cyber-enabled theft was not in China’s economic interest because it risked "sacrificing tomorrow’s gains for short-term gains today," but that it also threatened the foundation of the bilateral relationship. Secretary of State John Kerry told the press that the two sides had an "honest discussion—without accusations, without any finger-pointing—about the problem of cyber theft and whether or not it was sanctioned by government or whether it was hackers and individuals that the government has the ability to prosecute."
While it was to be expected that official remarks at the conclusion of the meeting would be conciliatory—both sides want President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in September to go well—Washington and Beijing made parallel calls for cooperation on cybersecurity that could lay the groundwork for future discussions. At the opening of the dialogue, State Councilor Yang Jiechi stated that China wanted to develop with the United States and other countries an “international code of conduct for cyber information sharing.” though no details were offered on what that exactly means. Secretary Kerry announced, with a similar lack of particulars, that the two sides had agreed to work on a code of conduct for cyber activities: “We believe very strongly that the U.S. and China should be working together to develop and implement a shared understanding of appropriate state behavior in cyberspace.”
Where these discussions will take place is unknown. The Chinese have made it clear that they will only agree to restart the bilateral cyber working group if the indictments of the five People’s Liberation Army hackers are dropped. Though Washington will not concede to those demands, they may not be too much of a hurdle. The two sides are already discussing cyber on the sides of other meetings, and they could expand those talks without a formal restart of the group.
Of course, the calls for cooperation may be nothing more than niceties, designed to reduce tensions in the run up to the September visit. From China’s perspective, it has always been open to greater cooperation. When accused of hacking, Chinese officials typically deny the claim, question the motives of the accuser, and then ritualistically invoke the need for international cooperation. But the call for cyber information sharing is new, and Washington should push Beijing to clarify what it means by information and how it would like to see sharing work. Good diplomacy can spin opportunities out of the introduction of new ideas.