Cyber Hacking, Military Might Lurk Behind U.S.-China Talks

U.S., Chinese officials hint at what's really bothering them at new bilateral summit.


Security tensions lurked in the background of new joint talks between U.S. and Chinese government officials on Wednesday, following an increasingly muscular Chinese military and reports that its government sponsors cyber attacks on U.S. businesses.

[READ: Chinese Hacking Is Back in Business]

Vice President Joe Biden warned of a growing Chinese military while delivering opening remarks Wednesday at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the State Department. An inability for the two countries to communicate could lead to unnecessary risk, he said.

This comes amid the widely reported focus on Asia in which U.S. foreign policy will emphasize challenges in the western Pacific rather than the Middle East.

"Your military is modernizing and expanding its presence in Asia," he said of the Chinese forces. "Ours is updating global posture as two wars come to an end and we re-calibrate and rebalance in Asia."

"These trends will bring us into closer contact," Biden said. "Leading the military dimension in our dialogue underdeveloped on both sides causes us to run unnecessary risk."

The Chinese and U.S. militaries have to know what each other is doing, he said.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew hinted at the reported Chinese military hacking project, unveiled in February, in which a private security firm Mandiant said the Chinese government stole information from at least 141 private companies. The program reportedly started up again in March.

Too much is at stake not to cooperate, he said.

"For the United States, this means an economic relationship where our firms and workers operate on a level playing field and where the rights of those who participate in the global economy, including innovators and the holders of intellectual property, are preserved and protected from government-sponsored cyber intrusion," said Lew.

[BROWSE: Political Cartoons on Chinese Hacking]

One expert in relations between the two superpowers says these kinds of summits can be just as much a source of intelligence gathering as relationship building.

"[These talks] make the other side aware of concerns and hopefully thereby achieve some basic understanding of red lines, or what is not to be done to inflame tensions," says Patrick Cronin, a China expert with the Center for a New American Security. "Conversely, they could use the information to just be more clever about how they go about their business."

Cronin engaged in direct discussions with Chinese People's Liberation Army officials while serving as director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University in the 1990s.

"These two central governments want this relationship to be mostly positive," he says. "That's the good news. If you expect more than that, then you're going to be disappointed."

These relationships come with a certain amount of rhythm, he says, in which their high profile forces the officials to oversimplify complicated problems to the media and public at large. Each delegation also needs to return to its leadership and report that it took some sort of hard line.

This relationship is also unique in the history of the world, in which two super powers are as much partners as they are competitors. Cronin compares it to somewhere between the Cold War with the Soviet Union and a G-2 relationship some policy wonks envision.

[ALSO: Obama Meets With Xi Jinping to Discuss Hacking, Human Rights]

It also requires a great deal of tiptoeing around issues.

"You're not really talking about what most concerns you, because that's too sensitive," says Cronin. "You're talking about the general area of what concerns you."

"There are so many different games going on in these dialogues, it's really hard to fathom," he says.

The summit was first dreamt up in 2009 by President Barack Obama and then-President Hu Jintao in an attempt to " further deepen mutually beneficial cooperation in a wide range of areas," according to a White House statement.

Most recently, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for their first bilateral summit as world leaders on the 200-acre Sunnyland estate in Palm Springs, Calif., in June.