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June 7th, 2013
05:55 PM ET

Huntsman: Cyber attacks a higher priority for new Chinese president

President Barack Obama traveled to California to meet with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping on Friday.

At a private estate on the edge of the Mojave Desert, the two will discuss hot button issues including cybersecurity and North Korea.

"The very fact that they're going to be in relative seclusion and isolation in California actually is a pretty good thing," former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said in an interview with CNN. "It's a first for the relationship in recent years, in the sense that there will be no outside noise. It's going to be strictly dedicated to trust-building a relationship."

Huntsman was the ambassador to China from 2009-2011. He is also a former Republican presidential candidate, and former governor of Utah.

The California visit, Xi's first to the United States as president, comes at a time of rising tensions over allegations of cyber hacking and cyber attacks; both countries accuse the other of engaging in such activities.

"The target set that China defines under the national security rubric, it goes well beyond what we wanted consider to be national security targets. And it includes private individuals, NGOs, civil society and private business. And that strays well beyond the red lines that otherwise are established  under the whole cyber domain and therefore becomes very injurious to the United States," said Huntsman.

China's broad national security definition results in intellectual property theft that costs the U.S. approximately $300 billion per year, said Huntsman.

"Everything under trademarks, copyrights, patents - they're all infringed upon, whether it's recordings, movies, clothing or very sophisticated software programs or even ideas that are being developed among defense contractors with respect to our advanced weapons systems in the United States," said Huntsman.

"All of this has become fair game in recent years. And it really has, therefore, become a significant national security issue, when you stop to begin to quantify the level of material and the information that has been exposed," said Huntsman.

Chinese leaders are aware of the intellectual property theft and cyber attacks, said Huntsman, but they have not been a priority issue for the Chinese government.

In the past, the issue of cyber attacks was often overshadowed by North Korea, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, market access issues, and sovereignty around the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

But priorities are changing, said Huntsman.

"I suspect that when the president sits down with Xi Jinping, that the cyber issue will begin to see a much higher billing, which suggests to me that I think the Chinese are going to recognize it as such and will therefore probably focus more attention on problem-solving around this in the years to come," said Huntsman.

Offline, questions of U.S. national security have been raised surrounding China's attempt to purchase Virginia-based Smithfield Foods. It would be the largest acquisition ever of a U.S. company by a Chinese one. Lawmakers have raised concerns about the health and safety standards of the company should the Chinese take over.

"What that kind of investment in our marketplace is going to do will force the standards upward of Chinese companies," said Huntsman. "Safety standards, efficacy standards, transparency, and the standard rules of engagement for trade and commerce that otherwise are less recognized in the China marketplace are going to have to be recognized when they come to the United States."

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates Smithfield, "will continue to regulate Smithfield's products regardless of a change in ownership," an agency spokesperson told CNN.

"To my mind, as they begin to invest in the United States and even in Europe, they're going to be forced to go up the ladder, as opposed to down, with respect to certain standards. And I think the Chinese know that," said Huntsman.

It is unclear if the Smithfield purchase will be on the agenda for this weekend's California meeting, though Huntsman said a broad range of topics will likely be covered.

"We have a new president who has consolidated power with greater alacrity than anyone in recent Chinese political history. He's going to be in office for 10 years, and he's looking to establish a rapport, a dialogue, with the United States that will be long-term, deep, strategic and meaningful," said Huntsman.

Huntsman predicts Xi, who replaced Hu Jintao as China's president in early March, will be the most transformational leader since Deng Xiaoping. Deng  is credited with China's economic transformation in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Deng, who was chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, encouraged the creation of a market economy and capitalist-like enterprises, and by the early 1990s his reforms had helped lift an estimated 170 million peasants out of extreme poverty.

From a political standpoint, Huntsman said the timing of the U.S.-China meeting is "in sync." If there are leadership changes on the horizon in China, or the U.S. president is facing re-election, politics will typically interfere with the list of priorities.

"In this case, you've got a leader set in China. You have a re-elected president in the United States. And you're not constrained by the politics that typically creeps into the U.S.-China relationship," said Huntsman. "In other words, there is some smooth sailing ahead and the opportunity, therefore, to deepen and broaden a relationship that desperately needs it."

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