A bilateral meeting saw U.S. officials criticize China for sponsoring cyber attacks against businesses.

High-ranking officials from U.S. government took the opportunity to scold China for its role in attacking U.S. businesses, but stopped short of publicly addressing the suspected role of Chinese hackers in the recent theft of federal employee data, writes Jackie Calmes for The New York Times.

U.S. Officials Rebuke China Over Cybersecurity Record

U.S. officials criticize Chinese approach to cybersecurity

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said that China was not a “responsible competitor” in cyberspace. “Nations that use cybertechnology as an economic weapon, or profits from the theft of intellectual property,” he said, “are sacrificing tomorrow’s gains for short-term gains today.”

High-level diplomatic talks are underway between the two nations this week, known as the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew mentioned cyber security on multiple occasions, claiming that “we remain deeply concerned about government-sponsored cybertheft from companies and commercial sectors.”

Cybersecurity is a matter of great concern to the U.S. given a number of hacks on both public and private entities which are suspected to have originated in China. U.S. Secretary of State said that ” a very frank discussion of cybersecurity and other ongoing concerns” would be had in private.

Talks will address a variety of issues

Hacking will be an important part of discussions, with the issue sure to provoke some acrimony between the two sides. Talks are also expected to address trade policies, banking and investment, the valuation of China’s currency and the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China’s continued land reclamation projects have provoked strong opposition from the U.S. and its regional allies, and both Biden and Kelly have spoken out on the issue.

The talks are seen as a warm-up event to the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in September. Little is expected to be finalized at this round of talks, but it is hoped that preliminary discussions can set the tone for real advances come September.

U.S. complaints about hacking were met with a non-committal response from the Chinese. State Councilor Yang Jiechi said: “We believe that cybersecurity is very important. We think that countries should work together to develop an international code of conduct for cyberinformation sharing.”

China’s government allegedly sponsoring cyber attacks

Suspicions have been growing that the Chinese government is responsible for hacking insurance companies, military contractors and other businesses in the United States. Security companies who have analyzed the hacks claim that elements of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appear to be responsible for some of the sophisticated cyber attacks.

One of the latest attacks involved the hacking of personal records of at least 4 million federal workers. Security companies believe that the hack originated in China, but may have been carried out by a mysterious group of hackers affiliated with the Ministry of State Security rather than the PLA.

It was not all doom and gloom though, as Kerry praised China for its cooperation on diverse issues such as Afghanistan, North Korea, counterterrorism and nuclear talks with Iran.

Long-running issues remain on the agenda

However the South China Sea is another hugely divisive issue, and Kerry stated “the need to reduce tensions – rather than add to them.” Beijing recently released a statement which promised that land reclamation work was almost over, although it would continue to add infrastructure to the new islands.

The statement did little to reduce fears that military installations are being added to new territories in disputed waters, which could be used to restrict access to strategic shipping lanes in future. Biden criticized China for forming part of a group of “nations that disregard diplomacy and use coercion and intimidation to settle disputes.”

Also on the agenda is the issue of human rights, a consistent stumbling block in relations with China. Western governments have been criticized for turning a blind eye to Beijing’s abuses, but advocacy groups hope that this time things may be different. Biden has already questioned China’s record, and claimed that responsible nations “respect human rights not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s absolutely economically necessary.”

A number of sore points will be discussed during the impending talks, although U.S. officials did celebrate a climate change agreement which was signed between the two nations last November. The talks are sure to reveal a lot about the evolving relationship between the two powers, and provide us with a better idea of how each side perceives the other, as well as progress in resolving a number of long-term issues.