Defense Bill Could Silence Critical U.S.-China Cyber Dialogue

Maryam Cope photo

A disturbing proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives could effectively freeze any productive discussion on cybersecurity issues between the U.S. and Chinese governments.  
The proposal – by Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida – is being considered as part of the House’s fiscal year 2014 defense authorization legislation.  It would block federal funds from being used for critical cybersecurity dialogues between the U.S. and China.  The amendment would place a counterproductive barrier of silence between two of the world’s superpowers and eliminate structured efforts to address mutual cyber issues of concern.  Sustained and high-level dialogue between the U.S. and China in relation to strategic and national security issues is essential to eliminating misunderstanding and building trust.

Carried to an extreme, the amendment could be interpreted as blocking the success coming out of the recent summit between President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping held in California earlier this month.  The two leaders discussed cybersecurity, and the two countries are pressing forward with cyber talks starting next month with the goal of beginning to understand each other’s intentions and set rules of the road in cyberspace.  Yet, the DeSantis proposal could prevent the presidents’ discussions or the subsequent diplomatic efforts, as no Defense funds “may be used for collaborative cybersecurity activities with the People’s Republic of China or any entity owned or controlled by China…”  This proposal would preclude U.S. national security expertise from participating in these upcoming discussions, experts who are essential to any discussion on cybersecurity with foreign countries. 

We understand policymakers’ concerns, but it is troubling strategy to freeze discussions between the governments on such an important issue.  Barriers to advance areas of mutual interest serve the interests of those who seek to engage in cyber crimes and other disruptive efforts that could pose serious threats to our critical infrastructures.  Our collective good would be better served by both countries working in tandem to address shared cybersecurity concerns.  As we discussed in a previous blog post, the United States and China have mutual interests in cyberspace that are surprisingly significant.

We appreciate the bipartisan efforts that have gone into development of the defense authorization bill and the complexities of the issues that House members are working to address.  To be sure, cybersecurity is a major priority, and ensuring that U.S. national security interests are fully represented at all levels of U.S.–China cybersecurity discussions and engagement will advance global security and stability.  But addressing the issues shouldn’t be done through isolationist policies.  In our interconnected, globally integrated world, solutions lie in competitive collaboration and mutual understanding. 

Editor's note:  ITI's Global Policy Director Jimmy Goodrich contributed to this blog.

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