WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. opened annual strategic talks with senior Chinese leaders here on Wednesday by repeating the United States' accusation that the electronic theft of American intellectual property could undermine the relationship between the world's two largest economies.
And to no one's surprise, the Chinese had an answer ready: that the publication of secret documents showing the extent of American surveillance of Chinese universities and other institutions undercuts the Obama administration's case.
That friction, American officials conceded in private, underscores how difficult it will be for the United States to make progress on what President Obama and his top aides have said is now a central issue between two countries whose economies are intertwined and whose militaries are in competition.
And at a time when the Chinese economy is showing signs that it is headed into a period of slower growth, the administration's hopes of persuading Chinese leaders to crack down on the daily barrage of theft and espionage over the Internet -- considered crucial to keep China competitive -- is likely to be even more difficult.
"We both will benefit from an open, secure, reliable Internet," Mr. Biden said at the opening of the talks, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual effort to bring together top Chinese and American cabinet and subcabinet officials on a range of problems. "Outright cyber-enabling theft that U.S. companies are experiencing now must be viewed as out of bounds and needs to stop."
Mr. Biden was making the same point that Mr. Obama repeated in recent weeks, including during a meeting with China's new president, Xi Jingping, in California. To the Americans, China's cybertheft -- often directed by units of the People's Liberation Army -- is different, and far more corrosive, than standard government espionage.
An American official who was sent out to brief reporters after the first day of talks said that when it came to the theft of intellectual property -- including the designs of commercial products and military aircraft -- "we don't do it, and we don't think any country should do it."
China has always viewed the issue differently, seeing far less of a distinction involving what it regards as issues of economic and military security.
"For many Chinese, it is bizarre that how Washington can continue to pose as the biggest cyberespionage victim and demand others behave well," China Daily, a government-influenced publication, wrote before the meeting, "after former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. spy agencies hacked deep into China and other countries' computer networks, including those of government, military, research, educational and business organizations."
It concluded that "by dividing cyberespionage into 'bad' and 'good' activities, Washington is trying to dictate the rules for global cyberdomain, which is a public space."
American and Chinese cyberexperts met Monday for the first time in a working group intended to address the issue. That alone was progress: when the United States asked Chinese officials to discuss cybertheft, cyberespionage and cybersecurity at a meeting several years ago, there was almost no give and take. But new attention focused on the activities of the Chinese military, notably Unit 61398 of the People's Liberation Army, has made it harder for Mr. Xi's government to ignore the United States' protests.
Mr. Snowden's revelations may be a gift to the Chinese, because they shift the focus from China's covert activities to Washington's. And even American scholars say the Chinese have a good argument. "It is not true that 'unwritten rules' prohibit economic espionage," said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor and cyberexpert who served in the Bush administration. "Economic espionage is expressly prohibited by U.S. domestic law but is not prohibited by international law, written or unwritten, and it is widely practiced."
The most fruitful part of the conversations, American officials indicated in a briefing late on Wednesday, dealt with North Korea and climate change, two areas where the governments have been moving into alignment.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.