Opinion: U.S. and China 'poison' debate on cybersecurity

Is China spying on U.S. tech secrets?
Is China spying on U.S. tech secrets?

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Story highlights

  • Absolute cybersecurity "not an option," says Zha Daojiong
  • "Poisonous" exchanges make constructive dialogue tough
  • U.S. and Chinese leaders need to tackle issue at September summit

Zha Daojiong is a professor of international political economy at the School of International Studies at Peking University. He appears as a guest on the latest episode of "On China," which premieres on CNN International on Thursday. The views expressed here are solely his.

Beijing (CNN)The recent accusations by Washington that Chinese hackers stole millions of people's records from the Office of Personnel Management in the United States must be seen in a different context.

To begin with there's an absence of a universally accepted set of rules governing the management of cyberspace.
In 2012, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) tried and failed to pass a code of conduct -- 89 countries were in favor, while 55 others refused to do so.
    So this leaves ample space for governments to compete in claiming the high ground, moral or legal and indeed both, in managing the flow of digital data across nation-state boundaries.
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    Meanwhile, the cyber world is not as virtual as is often portrayed.
    Governments negotiate with each other over the physical locations of devices for storing digital data and placing root servers that function like a general telephone switchboard.
    Eleven of the thirteen root servers that enable worldwide digital connection are in the United States, according to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.
    If a country pursues the idea of absolute cybersecurity, it may as well consider isolating itself from the rest of the world.
    China first debated cybersecurity in 1994, when it finally agreed to lay the first undersea fiber cable across the Pacific Ocean.

    'Poisonous' accusations

    Of the conversations I have been exposed to about the cyber issue in present day U.S.-China relations, a couple of observations come to mind.
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    First, the pattern of public accusations and denials, especially during the past eight years of the administration of President Obama, has become so poisonous that it's virtually impossible to have a constructive exchange.
    The U.S. would categorically blame China without demonstrating the specific technological pathways that led to so damning a conclusion.
    The rationale given is that the U.S. would not want to lose again its edge in tracing hacking activities physically based on foreign territories. The Chinese side would respond by calling U.S. accusations groundless.
    Worse still, China calls itself the "world's biggest victim of cyber attacks", many of which originate in the United States!
    Second, both China and the U.S. seem to agree that cyber means of intelligence-gathering are a way of life, as governments do spy on each other with or without cyber instruments.
    The U.S. side purports to say that China does more: It unfairly helps China's companies compete against their American peers by passing on data so acquired. Again, I would say the burden of proof is on the American side.
    The heart of the matter seems to be one of intellectual property rights. No company can expect to survive market competition by simply copying another's inventions.
    One of the attractions of the Chinese market for foreign direct investment, over the past several decades, has been a gradual but determined improvement in protection of intellectual property within the country's jurisdiction.
    In other words, it is in the interest of the government of China for it to prevent actors within its jurisdiction from abusing the use of cyberspace and infringe on the intellectual property rights of their legitimate holders.

    Cyber crimes on both sides

    Third, Beijing and Washington are correct to have put together a joint working group on cybersecurity. Since its initiation in 2013, however, the group has yet to help put mutual acrimony to rest.
    The upcoming visit by President Xi Jinping to Washington DC in September 2015 should be the occasion for re-energizing the working group.
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    As users of the Internet in both countries can fall victim to fraud, personal information leakage and other cybercrime, the two governments should start by exploring cooperation on this matter.
    This may well function as an ice-breaker for the wider discussions on cybersecurity.
    Last but not least, both Beijing and Washington are well advised to bear in mind that they are in a position to lead in the search for worldwide cyber governance.
    It would be ideal if during their upcoming summit Presidents Obama and Xi can jointly pledge to support the International Telecommunications Union in its efforts to establish a new set of globally accepted rules and norms.