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Security

Chinese leader denies hacks, opens door for cybersecurity accord

Before visiting the US, President Xi Jinping said China is a hacking victim, too, and suggests both countries will benefit from computer security cooperation.

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President Barack Obama is due to meet with Presiden Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China Martin H. Simon/Corbis

Don't blame China.

That was the key message on cybersecurity from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke in an interview with the Wall Street Journal ahead of a visit to the US, where he is expected to discuss the issue with President Barack Obama.

"The Chinese government does not engage in theft of commercial secrets in any form, nor does it encourage or support Chinese companies to engage in such practices in any way," Xi said. Using computers to steal secrets or attack governments is illegal and "should be punished according to law and relevant international conventions," he said.

His claims of Chinese innocence are at odds with the view of US officials who have become increasingly frustrated over online attacks they say originate from China. US national security advisor Susan Rice has said Obama will be direct with Xi in what is expected to be an intense discussion between the two leaders on the issue. Obama and Xi might try to negotiate an online equivalent of an arms control accord, a New York Times report suggested, but US officials remain unconvinced that the deal would explicitly prohibit an attack on critical infrastructure.

The tensions show how cybersecurity has grown from an obscure issue for computing experts into a foundational issue for business and foreign affairs. With the Internet powering everything from the world's most profitable companies to next-generation military operations, network security is now important enough to be a top agenda item for leaders of the world's biggest economies.

And after years of antagonistic rhetoric from both sides, there's now an opportunity for detente. If Obama and Xi manage to come up with a deal, it could -- depending on the terms -- be the first arms control agreement relating to cyberspace.

Although some officials have expressed concern that the deal may not tackle the urgent problem of attacks originating in China, but instead represent a "generic embrace" of a United Nations code of conduct, it's unlikely that Obama will give Xi an easy time. The Obama administration may even have developed a package of economic sanctions against Chinese companies that have benefitted from the theft of state secrets, a Washington Post report from the end of August suggested.

The US isn't the only target for cyberattacks. In the interview, Xi said China has also been a victim of hacking. "China and the United States share common concerns on cybersecurity," Xi said, opening the door for an agreement that benefits both countries. "We are ready to strengthen cooperation with the US side on this issue."