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Quick Reactions to the U.S.-China Cybersecurity Agreement

by Robert Knake
September 25, 2015

Xi Obama Cybersecurity Net Politics Agreement CFR U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington September 25, 2015. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters).


After an all night sessions at the Marriot Wardman Park, the United States has emerged with a landmark cybersecurity agreement with China. The deal has three parts:

  1. China agrees to stop engaging in economic espionage. This concession is massive. Whether they live up to their word remains to be seen but the agreement is a game changer.
  2. China will respond to requests for law enforcement and CERT-to-CERT assistance. In the context of the agreement to stop economic espionage, this is how the United States will measure the Chinese commitment. When thefts occur, if China picks up the phone, investigates, and makes arrests, we’ll know they are serious. If they don’t, we will know they never intended to honor their commitment.
  3. A ministerial-level dialogue and red phone system will be established. The Secretary of the Homeland Security and the Attorney General will lead the U.S. effort. The red phone will be used to deal with situations in which China doesn’t cooperate.

Some quick reactions:

  1. This was masterful diplomacy: the Obama Administration has been playing three dimensional chess and they won. The threat of sanctions brought the Chinese government to the table and kept them there.
  2. Sanctions will still happen: the President has promised that this tool will be used. Expect them to come but to target companies not Chinese officials.
  3. Expect China to roll this into anti-corruption efforts: China will crack down on officials and private companies involved in hacking U.S. companies. They will frame it as part of their internal efforts to reduce corruption and not as caving to U.S. pressure.
  4. Reports that the agreement would cover critical infrastructure attacks were a red herring: it was never in the United States’ interests and deterrence is probably already working with China in this space. They have as much to lose from taking down the NYSE as we do.
  5. Keep calm and spy on: none of this is about the OPM hack or traditional spying. Nor should it be. The big win is to change behavior on spying.

Kudos to the White House and State Department team. Now go home and get some sleep.

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