The United States is preparing to sanction Chinese companies connected to the cyber theft of U.S. intellectual property as early as next week, the Financial Times reported on Thursday.
The FT cited three U.S. officials as saying the sanctions probably would come next week in advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit later in the month.
Suspicions that Chinese hackers were behind a series of data breaches in the United States have been an irritant in relations between the United States and China.
The United States is also considering sanctions against Russian individuals and companies for cyber attacks, U.S. officials have told Reuters.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had said
any move against Chinese entities or individuals before Xi's trip was possible but unlikely because of the strain it could put on the visit. It will include a state dinner at the White House hosted by President Barack Obama.
“The Chinese government staunchly upholds cyber security, firmly opposes and combats all forms of cyber attacks in accordance with law,” Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said in a statement earlier this week.
Asked about the possibility of sanctions coming next week, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, "When it comes to economic sanctions, we don't preview any kind of sanctions beforehand for obvious reasons. We don't want to give a heads-up to those who may be potential targets of economic sanctions to begin to take steps to evade sanctions activity."
Zhu said China wants enhanced dialogue and cooperation with the United States and that “groundless speculation, hyping up or accusation is not helpful to solve the problem.”
The U.S. government has suffered a series of embarrassing cyber attacks in recent months, including one on the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that potentially provided a treasure trove of data about government employees to foreign spies.
U.S. officials suspect that attack was linked to China, which has denied any involvement in hacking U.S. databases and says it too has been a victim of cyber attacks.
The sanctions Washington is currently considering would not target suspected hackers of government data, but rather foreign citizens and firms believed responsible for cyber attacks on commercial enterprises, one U.S. official said.
If taken, the action would be the administration’s first use of an executive order signed by Obama in April to crack down on foreign hackers accused of penetrating U.S. computer systems.
(Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by David Storey, Bernard Orr and Alan Crosby)