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The U.S. and China have agreed that neither government would support or conduct cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a joint media conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday.
The Obama administration said that both countries are committed to finding appropriate norms of state behavior in cyberspace within the international community. The countries also agreed to create a senior experts group for further cyber affairs discussion, the White House said.
"I raised, once again, our very serious concerns about growing cyberthreats to American companies and American citizens. I indicated that it has to stop," Obama said. "The United States government does not engage in cyber economic espionage for commercial gain, and today I can announce that our two countries have reached a common understanding on a way forward."
There had been some suggestion that the two presidents could announce an agreement to not hack each other's critical infrastructure during peacetime, but experts told CNBC that they did not expect any news on corporate cybertheft—which many consider to be the primary problem in the space.
"China and the United States are two major cyber countries, and we should strengthen dialogue and cooperation. Confrontation and friction are not the right choice for both sides," Xi said through a translator, reiterating Obama's comments about the details of the agreement.
The Chinese leader said the new consensus is a victory for both countries as "cooperation will benefit both, and confrontation will lead to losses on both sides." He said his country "strongly opposes and combats" the theft of commercial secrets and other kinds of hacking attacks.
Beijing has long denied conducting any digital offensives—in either the corporate or governmental realms—but most U.S.-based cybersecurity experts say the country is the most frequent attacker of western interests. Attribution, however, is difficult in cyberspace, so many of those hacks could theoretically have come from private actors.
"If the U.S. side has concerns in this respect, we can through the existing channels express these concerns," Xi said. "The Chinese side will take seriously the U.S. provision of any information."
When asked about the details of the cybertheft agreement, Obama said "the good news from my perspective is...we have made significant progress in agreeing to how our law enforcement and investigators are going to work together, how we're going to exchange information, how we're going to go after individuals or entities who are engaging in cybercrimes or cyberattacks."
"The question now is: Are words followed by actions?" Obama said. "And we will be watching carefully to make an assessment as to whether progress has been made in this area."
The U.S. president highlighted his prior executive action that allows for sanctions against those who have digitally attacked U.S. companies or individuals. He added that he did not discuss specific hacking cases with Xi, but he said he emphasized that the U.S. will use the tools at its disposal to go after hackers around the world.
Obama admitted that neither he nor Xi can guarantee the actions of all of their citizens, but he said he can promise that the U.S. will not sponsor corporate cybertheft—and he hopes China can do the same.
While international rules for cyberspace are relatively undeveloped, China and the U.S. can work with other world powers to begin development on "an architecture to govern behavior" that is enforceable and clear, Obama said.