Though a report released last week didn't specify China as the target, numerous reports of Chinese hackers targeting American businesses and government agencies make them the most obvious target, The Hill reported Saturday. The administration said it may use "trade policy tools" to punish foreign businesses that have benefited from hacking American interests.
U.S. military officials have identified a Chinese military-run hacker group as targeting nearly 150 American businesses to steal secrets and pass them along to Chinese manufacturers. Beijing has denied the allegation.
Security experts said the shift to economic sanctions is a significant one in the escalating tensions between the two nations over cyberattacks.
"We don't hack into a Chinese company and steal their [intellectual property] and give it to Google or Apple or Ford," said Mike McNerney, a cybersecurity consultant and former Pentagon official. "We view that as out of bounds."
A security analysis ordered by the Pentagon found 141 American companies across the economic spectrum have been targeted by Chinese hackers.