The USA may issue sanctions against firms and individuals from China and Russia believed to be behind cyber-attacks against US commercial targets, officials said.
The sanctions are unlikely to be announced ahead of a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, and they added that a final decision on imposing them had not been made.
The US has suffered a series of recent cyber-attacks on government systems, including one on the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that was linked to China, though China denied any involvement and claimed it too has been a victim of cyber-attacks.
But the proposed sanctions would not target suspected hackers of government data, but rather foreign citizens and firms believed responsible for cyber-attacks on commercial enterprises, one official said.
"The United States, as we all know, has sharp disagreements with China over its actions in cyber-space," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at his daily briefing yesterday.
"We have remained deeply concerned about Chinese government-sponsored cyber-enabled theft of confidential business information and proprietary technology from US companies."
The action would be the administration's first use of an executive order signed by President Obama in April to crack down on foreign hackers accused of penetrating US computer systems, though White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to confirm the US was considering sanctions against Chinese entities.
"It would be strategically unwise for us to discuss potential sanctions targets because that would only give the potential targets of sanctions the opportunity to take steps that would allow them to evade those sanctions," he told reporters onboard Air Force One.
The sanctions are designed to cut the offending entities off from the US financial system, according to one official, who added that targets from countries other than Russia or China could also face sanctions.
Whether or not sanctions against Chinese targets go ahead could depend partly on whether diplomatic efforts ahead of Xi's visit produce positive results going forward, another official said.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said in a statement: "The Chinese government staunchly upholds cyber security, firmly opposes and combats all forms of cyber-attacks in accordance with law."
He 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 Russian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.