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We cannot let China use our ‘tech disconnect’ to advance its ‘rule by law’

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Technology is a critical component of China’s ambition to be the dominant superpower.

When it comes to global technology leadership, America has a growing and dangerous disconnect between the regulatory zeal of some and the national security interests of all Western countries. This “tech disconnect” threatens to undermine the United States’ national security strategy while handing a permanent geopolitical advantage to China, our most capable authoritarian adversary.

For starters, China’s ambition is not to be just a global superpower; it is to be the dominant superpower. To achieve this, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is twisting the concept of the “rule of law” to assure dominance through “rule by law.” Technology serves a critical component of its ambitions.

Domestically, leaders of the CCP leverage vague laws such as China’s Data Security Law to collect large volumes of data transferred across borders and demand source codes for any entity deemed to be “critical information infrastructure” — jeopardizing personal information as well as corporate and national security.

Internationally, in an effort to permanently tilt the playing field in its favor, President Xi Jinping has called for China to “lead the reform of the global governance system.” China’s approach to global governance has included increasing its participation in international institutions with a nefarious eye toward undermining organizations whose values do not align with their own — such as human rights — while reinforcing institutions and agreements aligned with its goals and norms.

Overall, China’s economic warfare targets the systems, assets and technologies that comprise national critical infrastructure, with the goal of replacing them with Chinese state-owned enterprises and aggressively pushing out competition across sectors such as energy (bulk power generators), telecommunications (spectrum and hardware), and critical manufacturing (semiconductors). The CCP increasingly relies on the soft power of global companies such as ByteDance and Tencent to perpetuate narratives that are friendly to authoritarian interests.

The Biden administration has released its mandated National Security Strategy. While highlighting common traditional themes — such as protecting American security, expanding economic opportunity and defending democratic values — the strategy prioritizes calling out the nature of the competition between democracies and autocracies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced a recast of the strategy and perhaps enabled the unequivocal description of the challenges we face today.

Plainly put, Russia and China behave in a manner that challenges international peace and stability. Russia has proven its capacity to conduct an unprovoked war of aggression and engage in acts that defy international order. And this is a bipartisan issue. The Trump administration was first to condemn the China’s ambitions and abusive tactics, bringing its malign behaviors to the forefront of minds in the United States, and now the Biden National Security Strategy also accurately calls out the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for being the only autocracy “with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.”

The strategy identifies this as an “age of competition,” requiring the U.S. to “leverage all elements of our national power to outcompete our strategic competitors.” It outlines three pillars to achieve its objectives: investing in the sources and tools of American power and influence; building a coalition of nations to enhance our influence to shape the global strategic environment; and modernizing our military.

Critical to success for all three pillars is the pace, scope and strength of U.S. technology innovation. But America’s technology leadership and our innovation capacity is threatened by over-zealous regulators on both sides of the Atlantic, whose efforts threaten the national security interests of the U.S. and its allies.

Under the phony pretext of fair competition and more choice for users, legislatures at home and abroad are targeting the business models of U.S. tech giants — namely, Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple and Microsoft (GAFAM). The European Union recently passed the Digital Markets Act (DMA), a landmark piece of legislation that could impede market access of U.S. big tech companies while opening European businesses and consumers to the risks of Chinese competition.

As the EU seeks to implement the DMA, the vice president of the European Parliament, Dita Charanzová, acknowledged the risk, saying, “The businesses (U.S. tech companies) are both loved and hated, but no one can deny they are vital to the European economy.”

Misguided efforts abroad are being duplicated by Congress with support from members of both parties. These proposals, aimed at U.S. tech innovators, seek to change everything from how antitrust cases can be pursued by states and increasing the number of regulators, to forcing tech companies to allow the installation of apps from third-party app developers and enable those third parties to collect user information.

The Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and Director of National Intelligence should be more actively engaged, and the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission should avoid lending indirect support to China’s ambitions. A briefing to Congress by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) on the threats facing our technology infrastructure might be in order, considering the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are recommending a nearly $3 billion budget for CISA in 2023 ($400-plus million more than requested).

Undoubtedly, there is a need for improved oversight and greater accountability within the U.S. tech industry. However, it should not come at the expense of personal and national security. After all, tech isn’t just another sector — it’s the very backbone of our national security, our economic prosperity, and the advancement of Western values.

Ultimately, these proposals could threaten the safety and security of our nation and our allies. The antitrust legislation aimed at U.S. tech companies will not achieve the overstated goals of their sponsors; rather, these bills would only serve to strengthen China’s efforts to rewrite a new world order. The bills would erode personal and corporate data security, place critical infrastructure at risk, and subject citizens of democracies to authoritarian governments and China’s version of “rule by law.”

Brian J. Cavanaugh is a senior vice president at American Global Strategies LLC. He was special assistant to the president and senior director on the National Security Council from 2018-2021. Follow him on Twitter @brianjcavanau.

Tags Chinese Communist Party Data security National Security Strategy Technology Xi Jinping

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