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Biden can do better on China if he learns from Trump's mistakes

Biden can do better on China if he learns from Trump's mistakes
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The debate about whether TikTok is a legitimate national security threat continues. On December 7, federal judge Carl Nichols blocked yet another attempt by the Commerce Department and the Trump administration to ban TikTok from being downloaded by new users in the United States. Judge Nichols called the attempted ban “arbitrary and capricious,” two words which too often now seem like apt descriptors of American foreign policy. If the Biden administration wants to be more effective when it comes to persuading Americans which companies pose actual threats, they’ll need to keep in mind a couple of lessons from the 2020 TikTok debacle. They should start with establishing transparent criteria for what counts as a national security threat.

When the Trump administration first raised alarm bells about TikTok, it was on the grounds that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could potentially gain access to a treasure trove of sensitive data detailing the lives of millions of Americans. Chinese access to American data is a legitimate national security concern. Indeed, we know that Chinese intelligence organizations have been linked to several incidents of hackers stealing personal information, which is then used in attempts to target Americans for intelligence purposes. 

Therefore, TikTok becomes an easy target for an administration looking to be tough on China. After all, when the CCP has its hand in everything, it’s tempting to treat everything like the CCP. However, attempting to ban every company that comes from or works in China isn’t a feasible policy strategy. It would be impossible, not to mention economically devastating, with many of the costs being borne by American citizens and American companies. Equally problematic, however, is picking individual companies to “ban” in a spurious and legally dubious manner.

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The lack of transparency when it comes to determining what counts as a national security threat leaves businesses uncertain of which companies they can engage with in business. When the president of the United States pushes for acquisition of Chinese business by American companies, as in the case of Microsoft and TikTok, it undermines the credibility of national security by blurring the line between national security and economic protectionism. 

In order to clarify this distinction, the Biden administration must ask two questions. First, they need to ask what criteria they should use to determine whether a Chinese company poses a national security threat. Second, they need to ask what is the least costly policy response that will mitigate the potential risk. As I wrote last year, “Without answers to these initial questions, we cannot determine whether a ban (…) or even a government use embargo such as the one placed on Huawei, is appropriate.”

TikTok is just one of many Chinese companies that has come under scrutiny by the U.S. government; a list that includes Huawei, DJI, WeChat and former Grindr parent company Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. Ltd. But the risks posed by each of these companies is quite different. It makes sense that the appropriate policy response to each should look different as well.

To be clear, I believe the Biden administration should be aggressive in holding the CCP accountable for its panoply of bad behavior, including stealing data, encouraging IP theft and undercutting global markets through state-supported enterprises. However, in order to do this successfully, the federal government needs to be unified in what it deems a threat and how best to counter it. Without transparent criteria, this unity cannot occur.

Whether TikTok is a legitimate threat has been debated for months. However, the lesson that should be learned by the Biden administration isn’t that Chinese companies are dangerous, but that a lack of transparency and unity regarding national security concerns leads only to legal drama that undermines the strength of the United States’ global posture by making the government look weak and uncoordinated.

The problem isn’t that the United States lacks the ability to mitigate Chinese threats. On the contrary, over the past few years we’ve seen myriad commissions, bills and bans attempting to counter the CCP and limit the influence of Chinese companies. The problem is that too many of these efforts are pursued in an opaque, disjointed manner that too often limits its justification to “China = bad, United States = good.” This is bad foreign policy and bad economic policy. Think tanks and academia can help with suggesting better policies; indeed, my own organization recently launched an initiative to do just that. But ultimately it is up to the new administration to decide how to address Chinese threats. Biden should learn from his predecessor and strive to do better.

Kathryn Waldron is a fellow with the Cybersecurity and Emerging Threats team at the R Street Institute.