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‘Clean Network’ in the US-China Tech Race

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‘Clean Network’ in the US-China Tech Race

Insights from James Andrew Lewis.

‘Clean Network’ in the US-China Tech Race
Credit: Pixabay

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the 261st  in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Assess the effectiveness of the Clean Network and 5G Clean Path in the Trump era.  

The Clean Network Initiative identified a major problem – the Chinese government uses any technological opportunity for espionage and surveillance – but it was never really implementable. It lacked a regulatory or legal basis, so it is best seen as aspirational. No one in their right mind should use a Chinese cloud service or undersea cables – it’s like inviting the Ministry of State Security or the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to listen in – but it will take time for this lesson to sink in and some countries care more about cost than security. Clean Networks helped start to change that. It was an effective way to call attention to the problem of Chinese technological espionage but otherwise had little impact.

How might the Biden administration build on the Clean Network?

Clean Network called for the adoption of “digital standards.” What it meant by this was really the adoption of rules and principles to guide the acquisition and use of technology and services from China. There is undeniable risk in relying on China as a technology provider, and the Biden administration has a good opportunity to build common understandings with allies and partners on digital governance. The dilemma is that the Europeans do not want to be caught in some tug of war between the U.S. and China. The new administration would be better served by pursuing a global approach to rules and principles for trust and security rather than an anti-China approach. Doing this requires rebuilding the trust with foreign partners that was badly damaged in the last administration – the loss of trust in the U.S. because of Trump is a refrain heard repeatedly from foreign interlocutors.

What is the impact of the Clean Network on digital bifurcation between the U.S. and China?

There’s not a lot of impact on the bilateral relationship, since even before Clean Network the U.S. rightly did not trust Chinese digital technology. If your supplier is the world’s largest surveillance state, one that pays scant regard to the rule of law – and this describes China – it would be naïve to think you can buy safely from them. With or without Clean Network, this bifurcation will continue to grow because of China’s behavior – an aggressive espionage campaign against the U.S., repeated human rights violations, and a predatory trade policy. The days when we saw China as a global partner are over.

Explain the Clean Network’s role in the context of the “Asymmetric Competition: A Strategy for China and Technology” report.

There’s a reluctance in Washington to recognize the damage done by the Trump administration. Our allies are cautious about working with us and will demur if they conclude they are being asked now to join an anti-China alliance. There’s also a reluctance to recognize that China is not the Soviet Union and it is no longer the 20th century. China is going to grow and advance technologically whether we like it or not, in ways that the Soviets could not hope to achieve. And China will always have the appeal provided by its giant domestic market. Finally, American politics no longer stops at the water’s edge. Domestic conflicts outweigh strategic concerns. This was clearest in the unwillingness of some elected officials to recognize Russian political interference but is also shown by the reluctance of some companies to alienate China and lose access to the China market. Recommendations for dealing with China must start by admitting to the loss of trust by foreign partners, the commercial incentives that drive companies to China, and the political discord that leads allies to doubt us and China to scorn us. The Biden administration has a good chance to change this in ways that make China policy sustainable, but the repair work has just begun.

Identify the top three priorities for the Biden administration’s technology strategy in the U.S.-China tech race.  

Priority number one is rebuilding the U.S. tech and innovation base. Decades of Congressional budget cuts have undermined it.  This means restoring funding for fundamental research expanding the tech work force through grants to students and elimination of visa restrictions, and reforming tax and anti-trust policy to increase the competitiveness that drives innovation and entrepreneurship. Priority number two is rebuilding common understandings with allies on digital trade policies and on China. This is not a “tech alliance.” Alliances are built on shared interests and values, not technology. As part of this, we will need with our allies to modernize and reform the rules and institutions inherited from the 20th century. The third is looking at our tech transfer policies, which are another 20th century left-over. Updating them to best serve U.S. interests – this is not an embargo or decoupling, but it is also not business as usual – should be a priority.