“In the Obama-Biden administration,” Biden said, “we got China to cut cyber-theft — it’s gotten significantly worse under this administration.”
There is evidence the Chinese government reduced its technology thefts from U.S. companies after an agreement struck by the Obama administration in 2015.
Other factors also led to the reduction, and it’s not clear why the thefts have increased under Trump.
For years, the Chinese government broke into the computer systems of American companies, military contractors and government agencies to obtain designs, technology and corporate secrets, usually on behalf of China’s state-owned firms.
For example, we rated Mostly True a claim that the Chinese stole an estimated $360 billion in intellectual property from the United States in 2015 alone.
The agreement announced in September 2015 by Obama and President Xi Jinping of China included a pledge not to conduct or knowingly support cyber-theft of confidential business information in order to aid companies or industries.
To back Biden’s statement, his campaign pointed us to a report and news stories. (A spokesman for the National Security Council responded to our inquiry, but did not provide any information to help evaluate Biden’s claim.)
An annual report for 2019 by FireEye, a California cybersecurity company, says that late 2015 and 2016 “saw Chinese cyber espionage activity begin to significantly decline, especially against the U.S.”
The report noted the agreement, but also that China’s People’s Liberation Army, which did some of the hacking, consolidated its cyber-related functions and the Chinese government “shifted its national priorities.”
That decline did eventually reverse, however, according to two news accounts in November 2018.
The New York Times reported that “for 18 months or so” after the deal, “the number of Chinese attacks plummeted,” but soon after Trump took office, “China’s cyber-espionage picked up again and, according to intelligence officials and analysts, accelerated in the last year as trade conflicts and other tensions began to poison relations between the world’s two largest economies.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Rob Joyce, then a Trump senior adviser for cybersecurity strategy at the National Security Agency, said the agreement had significantly reduced the amount of Chinese cybertheft targeting American companies, but that China had violated the agreement and “it is clear they are well beyond the bounds of the agreement today.”
The Journal also reported that several private-sector cybersecurity firms concluded that China had been in violation of that deal roughly since Trump took office, but that some security experts said independent factors, including a reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army, may have had more to do with the temporary decline in cybertheft.
So, a reduction took place after the agreement, something even a Trump official acknowledged, but even the evidence cited by Biden indicates the reduction may have been due to other factors, as well.
Several private cybersecurity experts we contacted agreed that the Obama deal was a major factor, though not the only one, in leading to the temporary reduction in China’s cyber-thefts.
Those experts are Inside Cybersecurity editor and co-founder Charlie Mitchell; James Andrew Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Christopher Painter, a member of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace who, while at the State Department under Obama, helped negotiate the deal with China; and Sean Kanuck, CEO of Exedec International and former U.S. national intelligence officer for cyber issues.
The deal may have saved American companies $15 billion a year, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But we did not find consensus on the Trump administration’s role in the uptick of Chinese cyber thefts.
The ramping up of the cyber-theft “is because the Chinese decided to increase, not because of anything Trump did,” said the center’s James Andrew Lewis, who was the U.S. Commerce Department lead for national security and espionage concerns related to high-technology trade with China.
Lewis said China’s economy was stronger when it made the agreement and that China underestimated how important cyber-theft is to supporting the country’s economy.
But Mitchell and Painter said that as U.S. relations with China have deteriorated since Trump took office, China has had less incentive to comply with the agreement. “At least one motivation that the Chinese had for complying went away as Trump started slapping on tariffs,” Mitchell said.
A final note: The experts agreed that when it comes to cyber thefts, there is no way to know exactly how much is occurring.
Biden said: “In the Obama-Biden administration, we got China to cut cyber-theft — it’s gotten significantly worse under this administration.”
China did reduce its cyber-theft from American companies in the wake of a groundbreaking deal it made in 2015 with the Obama administration, but other factors may also have led to the reduction.
The consensus among experts is that China’s cyber-thefts have gone on the uptick since Trump took office, but other factors, such as a dip in China’s economy, may have also played a role.
We rate Biden’s statement Mostly True.