At a time when ‘cyber anarchy’ seems to prevail in the international system, the emergence in 2015 of US–China consensus against ‘cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property’ initially appeared to promise progress towards order. The nascent norm against commercial cyber espionage that emerged between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama was later reaffirmed by the G‑20. China subsequently recommitted to this proscription in a number of bilateral agreements, including reaching a parallel commitment with Australia in April 2017.
While frail, such a norm might be celebrated as a triumph for cyber diplomacy, yet its inherent ambiguities have also created a grey zone that makes non-compliance difficult to demonstrate. At the same time, Beijing’s pursuit of economic security means that priority targets will likely continue to face persistent intrusions from more capable threat actors.
In fact, based on the technicalities of its terms, there’s fairly limited evidence of Chinese cyber intrusions since 2015 that obviously or blatantly contravene the Xi–Obama agreement.
Arguably, US diplomacy has contributed to reshaping China’s cyber-espionage operations. However, despite the decline in activities, the results haven’t been entirely as intended. The pattern of activities undertaken by Chinese advanced persistent threat (APT) groups since the agreement reflects China’s exploitation of the leeway in its phrasing. For example, the condition that neither the US nor China will ‘knowingly’ support IP theft may have encouraged higher levels of plausible deniability in Chinese cyber espionage operations since.
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