As the United States and other democratic nations compete with and defend against communist China in areas critical to national security, experts discussed in an event this week how to maintain and strengthen a digital ecosystem—including 5G telecommunications networks and social media environments—that upholds and advances democratic values in Asia and around the world.
“Beijing is positioning itself at the center of Asia’s developing digital order,” said Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which hosted the event on May 27 with the theme “Advancing a Liberal Digital Order in the Indo-Pacific.”
“This poses a series of challenges for the U.S. and its democratic partners and allies, ranging from the potential compromise of critical networks to the development of new technology standards that favor Chinese companies and undermine civil liberties,” she said.
With backing from Beijing, China’s controversial telecommunications firm Huawei has become a major concern and target for pushback from democratic nations after its rapid infiltration of markets around the world.
Martijn Rasser, Senior Fellow for Technology and National Security at CNAS, said that the concern about the spread of Huawei-supported 5G infrastructure is that the communications company is directly answerable to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—a risk too high for a nation’s critical infrastructure with potential vulnerabilities that could affect national security.
“Can you trust outsourcing access and maintenance of your critical infrastructure to an authoritarian regime that has a very different outlook on the global order, is very much a revisionist power?” Rasser asked. “That’s really the heart of the matter.”
Jonathan E. Hillman, Senior Fellow in the Economics Program and Director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that a key to winning against China’s state subsidised firms like Huawei will be some level of government support for telecommunications firms from democratic nations. He pointed to the cautionary example of Nortel, a now-defunct but formerly leading telecommunications firm based in Canada, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
“There is no Nortel anymore,” Hillman said. “Huawei ended up hiring all of their engineers, having them work on 5G. And it’s inconceivable to imagine China allowing a company with that strategic potential to just go under. I think there’s a new understanding of the stakes in this area and the importance of making those domestic investments.”
Hillman also suggested that telecommunications firms from advanced democratic nations need to be more willing to expand into and compete in emerging and overlooked markets as they work to build 5G networks.
“For all of the criticisms of Huawei, you know, the allegations of IP theft and security issues, benefiting from state support, as a company, it also emerged because it was willing to go to overlooked markets, not only in Asia and Africa but rural Montana too,” Hillman stated. “I think we need to be willing to compete, especially in those emerging markets, where you’re going to see more of the world’s population growth and economic growth.”
Rasser of CNAS stated that providing desirable 5G technologies, rather than simply playing defense against firms like Huawei, is also key, and noted that the United States has had recent success in the creation of an industry-wide standard in telecommunications called Open RAN (“open radio access networks”), which allows for the interoperability of hardware and software from different vendors in cellular networks. This standard is seen to lower barriers to entry and promote software innovation.
He noted that the innovative Open RAN standard was part of a telecommunications collaboration package agreed upon earlier this month by U.S. President Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“The U.S. and South Korea agreed to pursue 5G and 6G technologies, Open RAN technologies as being part of that package, all without any involvement of Chinese firms. That’s a big step for South Korea, who up until now, hasn’t really come out and specifically excluded Huawei,” Rasser said.
In addition to the building out of 5G networks, the area of social media, which involves major concerns pertaining to data security, disinformation, and censorship, was also identified by event participants as critical to the advancement of a digital order based on democratic values.
The CCP has been making inroads in promoting its views on U.S. social media apps like Facebook and Twitter, while also promoting global expansion of its own homegrown social media apps, like TikTok and WeChat, which are subject to the CCP’s direct monitoring and control.
Sarah Cook, Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House, a non-profit organization, said that China’s efforts in social media control and manipulation have been rapidly intensifying in recent years.
“One of the things we’ve seen over the last decade is actually how much China has changed in terms of how authoritarian domestically it is and how aggressive it is internationally,” she stated.
She noted that after establishing presences on international social media platforms, CCP-linked actors have shown that they will utilize their accounts in coordinated and hostile influence campaigns when it is in the CCP’s interest.
“We do see various examples of different places where, once a foothold is gained or some kind of a system of content dissemination is established that can seem to be benign initially and is even established on the basis of panda videos and bullet trains and things like that—you know, for example, the presence of Chinese state media on platforms like Facebook or Twitter—when it really matters to the CCP, all of a sudden, and they see something that they really feel they need to push, they will activate it.”
Cook warned that international social media influence campaigns originating from Beijing are growing more severe in their impact and implications for the national security of the United States and other democratic nations.
“In terms of some of the coordinated inauthentic behavior on platforms like Twitter and Facebook … the Chinese Communist Party and the various actors in the party apparatus engaging in that kind of activity are no longer only concerned about China’s image. They’re no longer only concerned about, you know, Hong Kong protests, what’s happening in Xinjiang, whether the [Chinese] Belt and Road [initiative] is really successful. There are examples of efforts to sow divisiveness in foreign countries, including the U.S., to enhance panics in the early days of the COVID pandemic, to divide alliances between Europe and countries like Serbia.”
While authoritarian China utilizes U.S. social media apps in subversive ways, it also collects vast amounts of data from abroad through its own social media apps and is able to enforce strict censorship from afar. Cook pointed to the CCP’s censorship of American users of the Chinese app WeChat as an example of the monitoring and control that Beijing is able to exert over activity on Chinese social media apps. She noted that, with respect to WeChat, there is “documentation of the level of censorship of blocking American citizens, in some cases Chinese Americans, who want to communicate with other Chinese Americans about even topics related to Asian American issues.”
“In terms of this question, ‘Would a Chinese tech company really go and monitor users and censor them and keep international users … off their platform and intervene in communications that politicians have with their constituents?’ The answer is ‘yes,’ because WeChat has already done it,” Cook said.
China-owned social media app TikTok, a video-sharing platform that has exploded in popularity globally in recent years, is seen by many as particularly pernicious because of its strategically cultivated image as a seemingly harmless source of entertainment. The Trump administration attempted to ban the TikTok app from the United States last year due to the privacy and security threats that the app poses.
Richard Fontaine, CEO of CNAS, seemed to express mock confusion about why the app—whose Beijing-based parent company ByteDance is answerable to the CCP—is a serious national security concern to sovereign nations.
“With the effort to ban TikTok, it was never actually specified what harm it is that we were worried about. Is it that our children are going to be propagandized by the Chinese Communist Party while they’re doing dances, and then they see ads saying that they should embrace ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ or is it that their personal information may be accessible to TikTok and then will be exfiltrated back to, you know, the Party will get ahold of it? What precisely is the harm that would justify some intervention in order to take away something that people find valuable?”
Freedom House’s Cook said that pushing compromized social media apps like TikTok “to play by our local, more open rules and finding what the right balance for … regulation in terms of what data they collect about users” is important.
However, Jared Cohen, the CEO of Jigsaw, a unit of Google that explores threats to open societies, including disinformation and censorship, warned that the CCP has shown it does not play by international rules.
“China plays by a completely different set of rules,” Cohen said. “We have certain lines we won’t cross, we have values that we adhere to, and they play by a very different set of rules … They define the rules however they want.”