BEIJING — In their first meetings with China’s new leaders, U.S. officials this week pushed for an acknowledgment of the unusual nature of cyberattacks originating from China aimed at stealing U.S. corporate secrets to benefit the Asian giant’s state-owned enterprises.
For years, China’s response to such accusations has been to argue that it suffers as much from cyberattacks as other countries do. But according to U.S. officials, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew pressed Beijing officials Wednesday to distinguish between common criminal cyberattacks and those apparently emanating from China with the intent of hurting private U.S. firms to benefit Chinese government-backed companies.
“This is a very serious threat to our economic interests,” Lew told reporters at the conclusion of his two-day visit to China. “There was no mistaking how seriously we take this issue.”
Lew brought up the issue at considerable length Wednesday in a meeting with China’s new premier, Li Keqiang, said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Li and others acknowledged the harsher tone coming from Washington on cyberattacks but did not indicate a shift in the Chinese position, the official said.
The visit marked the first opportunity U.S. officials have had to meet in person with new Chinese leaders since the months-long lull ahead of last year’s U.S. elections and once-a-decade leadership transition in China.
In their first months in power, Chinese leaders have promised reforms in the face of widespread skepticism on the part of a public increasingly disillusioned with the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.
They repeated pledges to undertake economic reforms in private meetings with U.S. officials this week but tempered them with calls for patience, saying they would be carried out in a gradual manner, yielding incremental progress, U.S. officials said.
“It was clear from the discussions that China has made a serious commitment to their reform agenda,” Lew said. “The dominant theme was what can be done to generate more domestic demand and more growth.”
Seizing on that spirit of reform, U.S. officials said they had presented many of their long-standing complaints, such as an artificially controlled Chinese exchange rate, characterizing the changes they sought as being in China’s own interest as it seeks to further develop its economy.
North Korea was also discussed at length, on the heels of a nuclear test and satellite launch that both China and the United States tried to deter the rogue state from carrying out.
China, North Korea’s closest ally, is seen as having the biggest — and perhaps the only influence — on North Korea, but it has shown public signs of frustration with Pyongyang in recent days.
The U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said reports of a possible cyberattack on South Korea’s major banks and main broadcasters began emerging amid meetings with Chinese officials.
But talk focused more generally on deterring North Korea from future provocations, and the issue was seen by both sides in this week’s meetings as an area of agreement.
Although the seven most powerful leaders in China have been decided since November, there were signs in the meetings that the exact assignments and portfolios of high-ranking officials under them were still being settled, U.S. officials said.
Lew and Chinese leaders also laid the groundwork for a visit in coming weeks by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, and they plan to proceed with an annual strategic and economic dialogue meeting between top U.S. and Chinese leaders that is tentatively scheduled for the summer.