China’s ambassador to the United States is warning that sanctioning Beijing for hacking the U.S. government would be counterproductive ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Washington visit at the end of the month.
The White House is reportedly on the precipice of unveiling economic sanctions against China for hacking U.S. companies, and potentially for orchestrating the massive digital theft of over 20 million federal workers’ data from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
Such punishments would come at a pivotal time for the U.S.-China relationship. Later this month, Xi will make his first official trip as president to Washington for a series of high-level meetings.
Both sides have been trying to remain on good terms ahead of the visit, despite ongoing disputes over China’s recent currency devaluation and territorial claims in the South China Sea, in addition to growing cyber tensions.
Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai argued hacking sanctions could help derail the meetings.
Such punishments would be non-constructive, Cui said, according to China Daily, a state news outlet.
“This means that China and the U.S. have every reason to conduct more communications and cooperation in this regard, instead of moving towards conflict and confrontation,” the ambassador told reporters over the weekend. “I hope the U.S. side will make a smart choice.”
Despite leaked comments from unnamed White House officials over the last week indicating sanctions were on the way, experts believe the penalties will target Chinese companies, not the government.
The actions would also likely avoid mentioning the OPM hacks.
“[OPM] is something that the federal government looks at as a legitimate intelligence target that we as a government failed to protect,” Rob Knake, a former White House cyber official and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Hill last week. “It does not fall outside the bounds of what intelligence agencies traditionally want to know.”
Cui believes China and the U.S. are best served by focusing on their areas of agreement.
“Our common interests clearly outweigh our differences,” he said. “Only by doing this can China-U.S. relations be kept on a healthy, stable and sustainable path.”