Trump’s TikTok threat lacks coherent tech strategy, experts say

Trump should focus more on boosting American strength in science, technology and R&D, experts say

A mobile phone featuring the TikTok app is displayed next to the Microsoft logo in this photo illustration. (Getty Images)
A mobile phone featuring the TikTok app is displayed next to the Microsoft logo in this photo illustration. (Getty Images)
Posted August 4, 2020 at 6:15am

President Donald Trump’s push to ban the popular video-sharing app TikTok is only the latest in a yearslong struggle by his administration to slow China’s technology juggernaut. 

But experts say the U.S. effort lacks a well-coordinated policy that addresses domestic tech investment as well as concerns of key American allies. 

“I think Trump’s model of administration is like the Mongol hordes; he points the sword and everyone gallops, but there’s not a lot of coordination,” said Jim Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The United States appears to be taking a multipronged approach to thwarting China’s technology goals spelled out in its “Made in China 2025” industrial policy, which seeks to make the country the dominant global power in tech and manufacturing. But there’s “disagreement within the administration on how far to go,” Lewis said. 

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Trump administration officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Justice Department officials have said that Chinese tech companies that operate popular apps allow Beijing to siphon off users’ data or are using American technology to gain military advantage.  

TikTok said it does not share users’ data with the Chinese government and would not do so even if asked.

On Friday, Trump is said to have considered signing an order to force China’s ByteDance to sell the U.S. portion of its subsidiary, TikTok, because of national security concerns, and Microsoft has expressed an interest in buying the company.

After initially saying he opposed TikTok’s sale to Microsoft, Trump seems to have relented and on Monday said he would kick the app out of the U.S. market if the sale isn’t completed by Sept. 15. 

Separating from China

The pushback against TikTok is “animated by concerns about data security and about China’s growing reach and influence inside American society,” said Ryan Hass, a fellow with the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “The Trump administration is seeking to create greater separation between American citizens and Chinese technology companies.”

The administration sees Chinese companies “as vectors for Beijing to expand its influence into other societies around the world to the detriment of the United States and the traditional values it espouses,” Hass said. 

But the administration’s approach to banning or forcing the sale of specific Chinese apps and technology is not matched by an equal focus on another crucial aspect of countering China’s rise, which is boosting American strength in science, technology, and research and development, said Adam Segal, director of digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

“You can’t have a policy of just hobbling China on technology,” Segal said. “You need to do as much at home.” 

The administration must address the broad U.S. science and technology policy by boosting spending on R&D, designing an immigration policy that brings talented scientists and engineers to the United States, and speaking with one voice on its goals with regard to China and technology, Segal said.  

One of the administration’s “greatest failures is not engaging with allies, because they all share our concerns,” Lewis said. 

The administration has brought tremendous pressure on allies to stop them from buying 5G telecom gear from China’s telecommunications giant Huawei — and has succeeded in getting Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom to rule out the company’s equipment. But other key European allies — including Germany, which is equally concerned about Huawei’s ties to China’s intelligence services — are reluctant to ban Huawei because they fear Beijing’s economic retaliation, Lewis said.

“That’s where U.S. support and leadership is important,” he said. 

The Trump administration has alleged that Chinese companies and state agencies are stealing Western intellectual property; the U.S. Commerce Department has imposed restrictions on transfers of key technologies to Chinese companies. And the Treasury Department has addressed some aspects of foreign investment in the U.S. tech sector. 

Moreover, in January, Pompeo told Silicon Valley tech executives that they should be careful about partnering with Chinese companies because Beijing’s ultimate goal is to steal American technology in order to boost its military strength. 

Trump muddies the waters

But Trump himself has muddied the picture by calling for banning or sanctioning specific Chinese companies only to reverse himself in an attempt to gain leverage on other contentious bilateral issues. 

In June 2018, Trump unilaterally lifted sanctions against China’s ZTE, a telecom company that had agreed to pay $1 billion in fines for violating U.S. policies against doing business with Iran and North Korea. The president’s reversal came over the objections of several Republican lawmakers when Trump was seeking Chinese President Xi Jinping’s help in the ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. 

Trump also indicated in early 2019 that he could ease a ban on U.S. companies supplying components to Huawei if Xi offered a better trade deal. Since then he has gone back to his earlier objections and forced U.S. allies including the United Kingdom not to adopt Huawei’s 5G technologies, after the United States and China reached a so-called phase one deal in trade negotiations.

In May, the Commerce Department issued new rules that take effect in September that would bar Huawei from using American-made technology and software. They would block companies around the world from making chips and other electronic components that go into Huawei products.  

The U.S. Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents chipmakers, has said the rule could affect tightly linked global supply chains for electronic components. 

The rule also would affect Qualcomm, a major U.S. chipmaker. China said it would reduce its dependence on Qualcomm and step up in-house production of key chips. 

Even lawmakers have expressed concerns that sometimes go further than those expressed by Trump and his officials. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who joined Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., in requesting a review of TikTok late last year, said Friday that he would support the sale of TikTok to an American owner but would introduce legislation that would set security standards for foreign apps operated in the United States.

“Moving forward, we must establish a framework of standards that must be met before a high-risk, foreign-based app is allowed to operate on American telecommunications networks and devices,” Rubio said.

Rubio and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., another prominent China hawk, both told the Financial Times that a potential sale of TikTok would not assuage their concerns about the app. Rubio said the company would still need to answer questions about how it stores user data.

“Until TikTok’s owners — regardless of who that might be — can answer these basic questions and get its story straight, I remain concerned about the company’s activities and reported ties to China,” Rubio told FT.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a key Trump ally who spoke to the president over the weekend after Trump threatened to ban TikTok on Friday, said a sale to Microsoft would be a “win-win.”

Last week, Hawley and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether TikTok and Zoom, another popular app with ties to China, disclosed private information on Americans to the Chinese government.