Trans-Pacific View

Cybersecurity Must Top Agenda as Trump Hosts Xi

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Trans-Pacific View

Cybersecurity Must Top Agenda as Trump Hosts Xi

Trump will need to address pressing cyber threats and policies if he seeks to support American jobs and companies.

Cybersecurity Must Top Agenda as Trump Hosts Xi
Credit: Pixabay

If America ever needed a wheeling-and-dealing negotiator, now might be the time.

As President Donald Trump meets with President Xi Jinping this week for their Mar-a-Lago summit, there will be several issues on the agenda, from the growing U.S. trade deficit with China to mounting militarization in the South China Sea. Let us not forget the unpredictable, third-generation dictator running North Korea.

Few experts expect easy negotiations. Trump, himself, has already cautioned, via tweet, that he is expecting “very difficult” meetings with his Chinese counterpart.

Within this tightly packed agenda, however, Trump must also squarely address one of the most important issues in the bilateral relationship — cybersecurity — particularly if he hopes to ensure that America keeps “winning,” locally and abroad.

In recent years, cybersecurity has emerged as one of the most contentious issues facing the two nations. Since China’s cyber attacks and cyber policies continue to threaten the growth prospects of America’s top technology and manufacturing companies, Trump must pay it much more than lip service if he truly seeks to support American jobs and companies during the high-profile visit.

The United States, thankfully, is not new to cyber negotiations with China. Nearly four years ago, at the Sunnylands resort in California, then-President Barack Obama pressured Xi to reach broader consensus and a framework for cybersecurity. After much negotiation, Obama and Xi agreed to stem cyber espionage, curb the theft of intellectual property, and set up channels for cyber cooperation. Two years later, Obama and Xi met again amid further tensions on the cyber front — most notably, the massive Chinese breach of four million federal employees’ records. Once again, the leaders reiterated commitments to strengthen dialogue and cooperation, and they outlined more administrative mechanisms to foster trust and advance common goals in cyberspace.

The visits were successful in developing and advancing bilateral cyber diplomacy. Moreover, they opened new windows for negotiation and provided channels for bilateral communication. In a report released last year, American cyber firm FireEye  reported that Chinese hacking had declined dramatically following those visits.

Today, however, many China policy observers wonder if room for more dialogue still exists. And many wonder whether the new Trump administration is willing to do more to stem China’s pressing challenges to American cyber activities and technological innovation.

To win this round of negotiations and accomplish even broader economic goals, Trump would be best advised to focus on a few attainable cybersecurity goals:

First, Trump will need to show a frank recognition of China’s growing status and ability to partner on cybersecurity concerns, as well as other significant international matters. It is time to move beyond the virulent China bashing seen throughout his presidential campaign, and look to establish trust and a viable working relationship with his Chinese counterpart.

Second, Trump should push back against an encroaching Chinese cybersecurity legal framework that could upend American firms’ access to the Chinese market and limit American long-term competitiveness. Anxious American businesses are now facing an uncomfortable set of burdensome cyber regulations, most notably the impending P.R.C. Cybersecurity Law, which goes into effect on June 1, 2017. The cybersecurity law contains a number of provisions that, depending on how they are implemented, could impose onerous and potentially untenable obligations on foreign technology firms that effectively restrict market access and create obstacles to cross-border data flows.

Finally, Trump should maintain or even expand existing channels for dialogue and cooperation. This would of course include the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) cybersecurity working group and the U.S-China High-Level Joint Dialogue on Cybercrime and Related Issues. But it remains unclear how the Trump administration will carry on these types of dialogues and diplomatic mechanisms, which will be necessary given the significant challenges facing global cybersecurity.

All of these goals, however, assume that Trump accepts the value in upholding U.S. interests in cyberspace and pursuing robust cyber diplomacy with China. It likewise assumes that he will seek to strengthen cooperation, rather than edging the U.S. closer to cyber skirmishes or a larger-scale cyber battle.

In the remaining hours before the summit, Trump may want to crack open the classic text on strategy — The Art of War — which gave rise to the title of his own best-seller.

“The skillful strategist,” China’s master strategist wrote, “defeats the enemy without doing battle.”

Jesse Heatley is a Director at Albright Stonebridge Group and a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.