The United States next month will urge China to resume discussions on cyber security that were abruptly suspended after the Americans charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into U.S. companies to steal trade secrets, officials said.
Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel told The Associated Press on Thursday that the U.S. would push for a resumption of the cyber working group when Cabinet-level officials of both sides meet at the annual U.S.-China Security and Economic Dialogue in Beijing in the second week of July.
After the indictments against the five officers were unsealed in May, Beijing pulled the plug on the group that had been set up a year ago in what Washington viewed as a diplomatic coup after President Barack Obama and China's President Xi Jinping held a summit in California, aiming to set relations between the two global powers on a positive track.
Those ties have come under growing strain, also because of China's assertive actions in the disputed South and East China Seas. Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, reiterated those concerns Thursday, saying the U.S. views it as essential that China shows greater restraint and uses diplomacy to manage its differences on territorial issues.
Asian nations, particularly treaty allies like Japan and the Philippines, look to the U.S. to counter China's increasingly muscular actions, but some in the region have voiced doubts about whether the second-term Obama administration can follow through on its commitment to focus on the Asia-Pacific, because of its preoccupation with the chaos in the Middle East.
Russel said Asia remains a strategic U.S. priority — even as Washington mulls some form of military action to combat the rapid advances of Islamic militants in Iraq who now straddle the border with Syria.
"The fact that events conspired to demand high-level U.S. attention in the Middle East or elsewhere is simply a fact of life. It's always been thus. The strategic imperative, though, that's made the Asia-Pacific region a priority for us in security, economic and political terms is unaffected by the short-term demands of crises here and there," Russel said in an interview.
"I have no trouble in enlisting Secretary (of State John) Kerry's efforts on our agenda in the region," Russel added, "and that applies to the president and vice-president as well."
Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will lead the U.S. delegation at the talks in Beijing, which are an annual fixture and viewed as important in forging a more co-operative relationship with Beijing, notwithstanding the frictions between them and China's growing challenge to America's post-World War II military predominance in the Asia-Pacific.
The two sides will discuss issues including turmoil in the Middle East, North Korea's nuclear program, co-operation on climate change, and the U.S. will raise human rights. They'll also address a slew of economic and trade issues, including progress on a bilateral investment treaty that China agreed to negotiate in earnest at last year's talks.
While the cyber working group remains on hold, Russel said the U.S. side will raise concerns over cyber-enabled theft of U.S. corporate data and intellectual property that the U.S. contends is shared with Chinese state-owned enterprises for commercial gain.
"That's an economic problem as well as a bilateral problem and that kind of behaviour risks undermining the support for the U.S.-China relationship among the U.S. and international business community. That's a problem and it's a problem we believe the Chinese must and can address," Russel said.
Although the revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden on U.S. surveillance tactics have embarrassed Washington — leaving it open to accusations of hypocrisy when it accuses others of cyber espionage — the Obama administration has taken an increasingly trenchant stance on intrusions from China.
The indictment accused the Chinese officers of targeting U.S. makers of nuclear and solar technology, stealing confidential business information, sensitive trade secrets and internal communications for competitive advantage. But after the indictments were unsealed, the five men were not placed on a public, international list of wanted criminals. There is no evidence that China would even entertain a formal request by the U.S. to extradite the five officers. It has rejected the charges and demanded they be withdrawn.
Russel said U.S. will talk to the Chinese in Beijing about the prospect of resuming the cyber group, calling its work "useful and important" — although little of substance reportedly came from its limited deliberations since it first met in July 2013, just before last year's Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
"We are ready," Russel said, but wouldn't speculate on whether the Chinese were.