FOR YEARS, the United States complained privately to China about corporate espionage and intellectual property theft aimed at U.S. companies and institutions. Nothing changed. In recent months, the United States went public in a series of speeches by senior officials who demanded that China knock it off. In an address in March to the Asia Society, national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon said “sophisticated, targeted” thefts of confidential information and technology were coming from China “on an unprecedented scale.”
This more assertive approach coincided with the rise of China’s next generation of leaders, led by President Xi Jinping. President Obama is scheduled to meet Mr. Xi on Friday in California, and they have plenty to discuss. The United States hopes China will help influence North Korea and Iran to stem or reverse their pursuit of nuclear weapons. It wants Beijing to stop bullying its neighbors in the South China Sea. More broadly, Mr. Obama should make the case to Mr. Xi that his best interest lies in steps toward liberalizing China’s political system — starting with an end to the persecution of human rights activists.
Economic espionage in cyberspace is a pressing issue where progress might be possible. To say that China has carried out a massive stealing campaign is not hyperbole, Chinese denials notwithstanding. The intrusions have been increasingly well documented. The United States also carries out cyberspying against China, and a nascent, offensive U.S. cyberwarfare capability is growing. But U.S. intelligence agencies do not steal technology or proprietary information for the private sector.
China probably can’t turn off the economic espionage like a switch. There’s plenty of nasty stuff in cyberspace that both countries probably can’t control — malicious code, disruptions and hacking. Both will remain wary military competitors, on the ground and in cyberspace.
But Mr. Xi could agree to a sustained and deeper engagement on the topic, perhaps with an accelerated pace of bilateral working groups, both military and diplomatic. A useful long-range goal for these talks would be an agreement on norms and standards of behavior. They could take off the table some of the most egregious actions, such as grand theft of intellectual property.
Mr. Xi has spoken expansively but vaguely of a “Chinese dream” of completing the leap from a poor and isolated nation to a global economic superpower. In the past, rogue behavior such as cybertheft may have provided a shortcut to greatness. But no longer. If China fails to evolve toward more responsible behavior both abroad and at home, a backlash that is already forming in the United States and among its neighbors will swell. A fundamental change at the top is needed, and Mr. Obama should urge Mr. Xi to provide it.