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U.S., China Talks On Cybersecurity To Be A 'Very Complicated Negotiation'


Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington today. One major point of contention between the U.S. and China that's on the agenda is cybersecurity. Xi's visit comes as the U.S. and China have been accusing each other of breaking into critical computer systems, stealing data and threatening private and public networks. The two sides will talk about this, but what are the chances they'll reach any kind of detailed agreement? Joining us is Kenneth Lieberthal from the Brookings Institution.

Welcome to the program.


MCEVERS: And Ken, we keep hearing about these real and alleged cyberattacks from China to the U.S. as well as from the U.S. to China. I mean, what kind of attacks are we talking about here?

LIEBERTHAL: Partly intelligence gathering, and intelligence gathering is something both of us do, we do it on a large scale and neither side is about to back off from that. Secondly, the theft of proprietary information - technology, trade secrets and so forth from corporations, and it's used for commercial purposes. We have accused the Chinese government of doing that on a very large scale. The president has complained about it repeatedly. He has now gone so far as to call it an act of aggression. So that will be front and center. Thirdly, more broadly, question of - is there a way to negotiate norms that would include, for example, during peacetime not engaging in attacks that would actually produce physical damage, that would, say, shut down an electrical grid, bring down an airplane, disrupt an industrial facility? The U.S. and China have not done that to each other, and the question is whether we can negotiate some norms that will begin to move the world to a safer place on that, at least for peacetime restraint.

MCEVERS: As we mentioned, the U.S. and China are at the very beginnings of talks on these issues. What do you think will come out of this week of talks between the two sides?

LIEBERTHAL: I think at best we'll have an agreement to engage at a high level on especially the theft of intellectual property and its use for commercial purposes and on norms of mutual restraint in terms of peacetime, what I would call cyber-sabotage.

MCEVERS: An agreement to engage at a high level. That sounds like an agreement to start with the proceedings, you know? It doesn't sound like a final document.

LIEBERTHAL: Oh, there will not be any agreement in detail. This is very early days. It's going to be a very complicated negotiation.

MCEVERS: I mean, during the Cold War when you had difficult negotiations like this, it was about one threat - nuclear bombs, a knowable thing. Digital threats are different, I mean, because the nature of the threat itself, it's changing and evolving. Right? I mean, is that one thing that's making this so difficult?

LIEBERTHAL: Absolutely. The technologies are changing at lightning speed. The scope of things that are done digitally are expanding very dramatically, and so if you want to cause trouble, there is just an enormous array of kind of pathways to get from here to there. We don't even agree on the vocabulary at this point. We use the same words with different meanings, and so there's a lot of ground to clear before we get meaningful agreement.

MCEVERS: I mean - just very quickly - even if they did come to some agreement down the line, I mean, how would you even enforce it?

LIEBERTHAL: That would have to be part of the agreement. Where you have disagreement over whether something happened, what kind of evidence do you have present? How quickly does the other side have to respond and then what are the legitimate penalties? What can you do that is considered legitimate, given what the other side that - the question is, can we turn the general direction around or are we just going to be getting into deeper and deeper trouble? That's really the issue at stake here.

MCEVERS: Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution, thank you so much.

LIEBERTHAL: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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