The White House is considering applying sanctions against companies and individuals in China it believes have benefited from Chinese hacking of U.S. trade secrets, the Washington Post reported on Sunday.
The newspaper, citing several unidentified Obama administration officials, said a final determination on whether to issue the sanctions was expected soon, possibly as early as the next two weeks.
Suspicions that Chinese hackers were behind a series of data breaches in the United States have been an irritant in relations between the world’s two largest economies as President Xi Jinping prepares to make his first visit to the United States next month.
Obama administration officials have said China is the top suspect in the massive hacking of a U.S. government agency that compromised the personnel records of at least 4.2 million current and former government workers. China has denied involvement.
U.S. government officials and cyber analysts say Chinese hackers are using high-tech tactics to build massive databases that could be used for traditional espionage, such as recruiting spies, or gaining access to secure data on other networks.
The Post said the sanctions would be the first use of an executive order that President Barack Obama signed earlier this year to authorize freezing the assets of overseas entities and individuals suspected of commercial cyber espionage.
A White House official had no immediate comment on the report. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Post quoted an administration official as saying the possible sanctions move “sends a signal to Beijing that the administration is going to start fighting back on economic espionage, and it sends a signal to the private sector that we’re on your team. It tells China, enough is enough.”
The newspaper said the sanctions would not be imposed as retaliation for the suspected hacking of the U.S. government personnel records, as they were deemed to have been carried out for intelligence reasons rather than to benefit Chinese industry.