BEIJING — The United States and China held their highest-level military talks in nearly two years Monday, with a senior Chinese general pledging to work with the United States on cybersecurity because the consequences of a major cyberattack “may be as serious as a nuclear bomb.”
Cybersecurity has become a sudden source of tension between the two countries. China has bristled over the growing body of evidence that its military has been involved in cyberattacks on U.S. corporations and some government agencies. Last month, the Obama administration demanded that the Chinese government stop the theft of data from U.S. computer networks and help create global standards for cybersecurity.
At a news conference Monday after talks with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui said he would be willing to set up a cybersecurity “mechanism,” but warned that progress might not be swift.
“I know how difficult it is,” Fang said. “Anyone can launch the attacks — from the place where he lives, from his own country or from another country.”
Dempsey arrived in Beijing on Sunday for what aides said was his first visit to China. His predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, held talks in Beijing in July 2011.
Dempsey’s three-day visit comes as mistrust has mounted between Beijing and Washington over a host of issues, including differences over North Korea, Washington’s strengthened military posture in the Asia Pacific region, China’s assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, and basic problems of how the two militaries should communicate in a crisis.
China invited Dempsey for the talks after the lengthy transition process to a new Chinese government was completed in March. His arrival follows the first visit of Secretary of State John Kerry more than a week ago, and Obama administration officials say they hope the almost back-to-back talks will yield a starting point for better relations after a rocky period of drift.
At the news conference, Fang, who is the chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff and a member of the powerful Central Military Commission, also talked of wanting a “new kind of military relationship that is consistent with the state-to-state relationship.” He spoke with a confidence that reflected the growing strength of China’s military, including expanding its naval presence.
“The Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate us both,” Fang said, a suggestion that it was time for the United States to understand the U.S. military would not be able to dominate forever. President Xi Jinping used the same phrase on the eve of his visit to Washington as vice president in February 2012.
Dempsey did not allow the remark to go unnoticed. The United States, he said, was looking for a “better, deeper and more enduring relationship” with the Chinese military — but in the context of “other historic and enduring alliances,” a reference to U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia.