Designate China a strategic adversary, and prosecute companies that give it AI technology

Lists are an indelible part of our culture. Santa has his list of the nice and the naughty; the FBI has their Top 10 Most Wanted; many have “bucket lists;” and then there’s Craigslist. The United States government is especially fond of lists.

Terrorist groups like ISIS, HAMAS and Boko Haram are on the State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria are included on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The United States Department of Treasury operates the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and its list.

Through OFAC, the Treasury “administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United​ States.” Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei recently ran afoul of one of these lists and was indicted for violating trade sanctions on Iran. 

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Some of the more serious lists are also terror watch lists. The Terrorist Screening Database is a series of watchlists consolidated under the Terrorist Screening Center administered by the FBI. If you can’t fly, chances are your name is in the database. These lists deal with threats that are considered immediate, tactical and useful in front-line operations like keeping suspected terrorists off planes and out of our country. And like most government lists they have knee-jerk qualities.

The terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks was Al-Qaeda. It already was on the State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, landing there on Oct. 8, 1999. Success? No. Al-Qaeda, originally established in 1988, perpetrated the bombings of United States embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Aug. 7, 1998. More than 5,000 people were wounded and 244 were killed. It took another 14 months before Al-Qaeda would be declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

It’s time to change how the United States views threats, especially strategic ones.

It’s easy to react to tactical threats like terrorism. Death and destruction provide the undeniable evidence lawmakers need to take action. With Russia, the 2016 influence operations directed at the presidential campaign was an easy marker. Not so easy when discussing China.

When there is uncertainty, there is opportunity for our adversaries. China is exploiting the uncertainty through superficially benign influence operations. These are anything but benign. Using the powerful central Communist government, armed with seemingly unending lines of credit, China is buying their way into global dominance.

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Through the theft of intellectual property, active cyber espionage efforts aimed at defense contractors, and the wholesale compromise of sensitive information, China is executing on their “thousand grains of sand” approach: It waits for all manner of material to accumulate until a mosaic of information appears. Even if it takes years or decades.

China has made it clear that it intends to dominate quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics by 2030. President Xi has left no doubt as to those intentions. In June of 2017, China released an aggressive plan that seeks to grow its AI development to $59 billion by 2025.

The United States lacks a strategic plan to stop China, say Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenators take fundraising efforts to Nats playoff games Senate Intelligence report triggers new calls for action on election security Senate Intel report urges action to prevent Russian meddling in 2020 election MORE (D-Va.) and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFive ways Trump's Syria decision spells trouble Rubio hits Warren's 'crude' and 'vulgar' response to opposition to same-sex marriage Trump puts election-year politics at center of impeachment case MORE (R-Fla.), who propose an Office of Critical Technology and Security to combat the continuing assault from China and other ‘foreign threats,’ according to their formal announcement.

According to the senators, the federal government is lacking a strategic plan: “(A) to stop the transfer of critical emerging, foundational, and dual-use technologies to countries that pose a national security risk; and (B) to maintain United States technological leadership with respect to critical emerging, foundational, and dual-use technologies and ensure supply chain integrity and security for such technologies.”

This is designed to protect us from “countries of concern.”

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The vagueness of actually defining who we’re are concerned with, and why, opens the door for uncertainty once again. You can’t defeat an adversary you choose not to define. And it’s not just the countries; it’s companies too. 

Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as much during his Senate testimony on March 14, as well as at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council: “In my judgment, us assisting the Chinese military in advancing technologically is not in U.S. national interests, so it’s a debate we have to have.”

According to the Center for a New American Security, “AI is a high-level priority within China’s national agenda for military-civil fusion, and this strategic approach could enable the PLA to take full advantage of private sector progress in AI to enhance its military capabilities.”

It's time for a new list, and a new designation.

“Designated Strategic Adversary” is an apt description for Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. We need to protect our advantage in AI, machine learning, and to a lesser degree quantum computing the same way we prohibit the sale of restricted technology to Iran and North Korea. 

It’s time to designate Artificial Intelligence the same way we do other vital military technologies under ITAR — the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The mechanisms we use to restrict the sale of ‘Firearms, Close Assault Weapons and Combat Shotguns” to “Aircraft and Related Articles” ought to be how we restrict the sale, transfer and cooperation in the development of AI.

There is precedent for this. In 2001, ITT Corporation exported restricted night-vision goggle components to China, Singapore and Great Britain. In 2007, the company pleaded guilty to a variety of offenses, and incurred a $100 million fine. According to then-Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, “ITT’s exportation of this sensitive technology to China and other nations jeopardized our national security and the safety of our military men and women on the battlefield.”

One day, when China and the United States might face each other in battle, will the export of our sensitive technology in AI and quantum computing by American companies jeopardize our national security and the safety of our men and women on the battlefield? It will, without a doubt.

Unless we act now and declare China a Designated Strategic Adversary and restrict companies from opening up AI centers in China that feed directly to their military, the United States will end up on another list: Former military superpowers.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. He previously worked as a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and as senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.