China's Cyber-Commitments and Congressional Oversight: A Suggestion

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, September 28, 2015, 4:45 PM

Last week's meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Obama produced a significant bilateral statement on cybersecurity spying: "The United States and China agree that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors."

Significant, that is, if it is remotely honored. But will it be?

As President Obama put it, "the question now is, are words followed by actions. And we will be watching carefully to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area." Jack noted that "we will see if [China's] acceptance of the American position at the rhetorical level results in a change in behavior." Herb put it like this: "more doors are open today than they were last week. Now each side needs to walk through those doors and do some hard work."

The public has relatively little window onto Chinese cybersecurity behavior. Various security agencies, however, have a great deal. And we're going to need a steady stream of reporting from them on Chinese behavior and whether and how it is changing.

The trouble is that the government, as a whole, has a lot of other interests with respect to China—trade, security cooperation and confrontation in other areas, and climate change, to cite only a few examples—that do not always allow cybersecurity to occupy the front burner in the relationship between the two countries. The temptation on the part of the administration to describe "progress" or "ongoing dialogue" on this front will, therefore, be strong—and the temptation to use that progress as a way of not doing anything will be strong as well. Indeed, Jack has shown how time and again, the administration has threatened a great deal more than it has done. Having a joint statement of common principles may only magnify the urge to inaction on the U.S. side, as it could function as a cloak of apparent progress behind which to hide while it pursues other interests in America's most dynamic and complicated biliateral relationship.

That's why there is an important oversight role here for Congress here. If Chinese behavior does, indeed, change, that fact will be visible to our intelligence community relatively quickly. Congressional committees should therefore make a point of asking officials in open hearings whether or not they have seen signs of changed Chinese behavior in the period leading up to and following this agreement. Is there evidence that the Chinese government is curtailing or reducing its theft of intellectual property and dissemination of that materials Chinese companies? Or is China brazenly denying what it is, in fact, still brazenly doing?

Chinese legislators don't conduct oversight over their leadership. Our legislators can, to a limited extent, do so on this point—ironically, by conducting oversight of this country's executive branch and whether a deal it has made has any teeth at all.