U.S. and China must Lead on Cybersecurity - San Francisco Chronicle

The United States and China must lead the way on cybersecurity, and it should be put on the agenda for President Hu Jintao's forthcoming state visit to Washington. This bilateral relationship, in turn, will encourage other nations to follow.

The stakes are simply too high to do nothing.

Sophisticated attacks against financial institutions and technology firms, including Google, have led to enormous property theft. The threat goes beyond the private sector: Our adversaries are constantly looking for weakness, targeting Pentagon and other government networks tens of thousands of times daily.

A major attack could be devastating because critical national infrastructure depends heavily on computer networks. Analysts warn that a major attack could disable power grids, sabotage chemical plants and refineries, open dam floodgates and disrupt rail systems and air traffic control. It could put innocent lives at risk, bring commerce to a halt and send financial markets tumbling. If it came from an adversary state, then it could escalate into a cyberconflict or even a shooting war.

Recent history shows how cyberattacks can cripple a country in crisis. In 2008, Georgian government and media websites were disabled ahead of the Russian invasion. Later investigations pointed to hackers in Russia, but did not prove Russian government involvement.

We recently traveled to China, where we raised the cyber threat with several top national leaders. We came away encouraged that they agree this issue should become a subject of high-level attention.

To be sure, the United States and China have sharply divergent views on Internet freedom. But we must not let these differences stand in the way of serious talks. Before our trip, Chinese diplomats confirmed that China is interested in international engagement on cybersecurity. In China, we raised the issue with a broad range of leaders, from the vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, to Bo Xilai, a Politburo member and populist leader of Chongqing.

Our most significant feedback came from Wu Bangguo, China's top legislator, ranking second in the Chinese Communist Party behind President Hu. Chairman Wu previously served as vice premier of the State Council, charged with developing China's cyber infrastructure. He confirmed that China does not want a cyberwar, and he agreed that cybersecurity should become an area for international cooperation. He suggested it be part of the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the United States and China. This is the highest formal dialogue between our countries.Dialogue is vital, because today we lack a structure and common language on this issue. As Zhao Zeliang, director-general of China's Department of Information Security Coordination, put it recently: "To seize the promise of cyberspace and meet the peril, a widely agreed upon framework and a shared lexicon are necessary."

None of this is to say that reaching agreement on cybersecurity will be easy. But it is in our national interest to make the effort, given our increasing reliance on information networks for national and economic security and public safety.

The United States and China must take the first steps on this long journey.