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Cybersecurity Tops Agenda As Chinese President Visits Obama


Chinese President Xi Jinping is also in the United States, and he'll get to the White House by the end of the week, if he makes it through the traffic. Today, he's in Seattle meeting with tech industry leaders, and that is meaningful because China has been blamed for widespread hacking of American businesses and government. The Obama administration has been warning that this could threaten what is arguably the world's most important international relationship. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: President Obama says cybersecurity will be one of the biggest topics that he and Chinese President Xi will tackle at their summit. And in remarks last week to the Business Roundtable, he made clear just how high the stakes are.


BARACK OBAMA: This is not just a matter of us being mildly upset, but is something that will put significant strains on the bilateral relationship if not resolved, and that we are prepared to take some countervailing actions.

NAYLOR: Obama singled out Chinese hacking of American companies' intellectual property - industrial espionage, he called it, the stealing of trade secrets. Estimates are that hundreds of U.S. companies have been attacked by hackers originating in China. Adam Segal is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

ADAM SEGAL: We don't know exactly how many companies have been hacked because lots of companies don't like to talk about it. But there is an old joke in the cybersecurity community that there are two kinds of companies - those that have been hacked and those who don't know it yet.

NAYLOR: The U.S. has been threatening to impose economic sanctions unless the issue is resolved. Administration officials met with their Chinese counterparts in Washington earlier this month to press the point. James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the message that the issue threatens the overall relationship between the two countries seems to have gotten through.

JAMES LEWIS: One of the benefits of threatening to sanction them was they realized just how important this was to the Americans. And their attitude has been, that's really interesting, we'll get back to you. Thanks for telling us. Now they've engaged seriously.

NAYLOR: But just how far China is willing to go remains to be seen. The U.S. might ask the Chinese government to prosecute Chinese companies that hack American firms. Bonnie Glaser, another fellow at CSIS, is skeptical.

BONNIE GLASER: There's this notion in China that you kill the chickens to scare the monkey. You know, you just - you at least signal that you're going to do something about this and that hopefully other firms get in line. I think it remains very much to be seen whether the Chinese will do this. I'm personally not very optimistic.

NAYLOR: There have been reports the U.S. and China could agree this week not to launch cyberattacks against each other's critical infrastructure and might adopt a U.N. code of conduct for use of cyberweapons. That's fine as far as it goes, says Lewis. But it doesn't really address the big issue of hacking U.S. companies and getting China to play by the rules.

LEWIS: The rules say don't steal other people's intellectual property. The Chinese have ignored that, and they've underestimated how damaging that has been to the relationship.

NAYLOR: No one's expecting any major breakthroughs this week. Lewis, though, was optimistic the U.S. and China might be able to agree to set up high-level talks on cyber issues, a 21st century equivalent to the arms-control talks the U.S. and the Soviet Union held during the Cold War. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.