The Beijing balance: Additional steps are needed to safeguard the US against China

The Beijing balance: Additional steps are needed to safeguard the US against China

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President Biden’s meeting with Xi Jinping at last month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in San Francisco, combined with the attention given to the Gaza War and other issues, may have quieted near-term concerns regarding Sino-American relations. But as U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns recently observed, being hopeful about the relationship differs from being optimistic. Sino-U.S. ties are still primed for problems. The U.S. must take additional steps to address critical Chinese challenges to U.S. national security.

The APEC meeting failed to realize immediate progress on the topics that had dominated the U.S. agenda for the talks; most Chinese commitments were long term or simply statements to consider issues rather than resolve them. For example, although the Chinese delegation agreed to establish a senior-level counter-narcotics working group to consider the fentanyl crisis in the U.S., Chinese authorities have not yet taken comprehensive actions to stem the flow of Chinese-made chemical precursors to North American-based narcotics producers.   

Though the progress on relaunching the Sino-U.S. defense dialogue seemed to yield concrete results, recent news reports indicate this may not be true. In any case, the U.S. preoccupation with building new China-U.S. military communications mechanisms seems excessive, since existing confidence-building and transparency measures have been of limited value. For more than two decades — from the 1999 accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, through the 2001 collision of a Chinese and U.S. warplane, and up to this February’s Chinese spy balloon overflight — Chinese military authorities have refused to respond to Pentagon efforts to communicate during a crisis.

The usefulness of the new China-U.S. talks on risk and safety issues related to artificial intelligence (AI) is also uncertain. Anxiety about how Chinese agencies will use AI technologies at home and abroad is warranted. China has declared its intent to become a world leader in AI and is spending on it accordingly. Meanwhile, scholars have highlighted the dangers stemming from Chinese authorities’ penchant for risk-taking, suppression of unwanted information, downplaying of safety considerations, inadequate crisis response procedures, and misuse of existing AI surveillance technology. Past efforts to make Beijing a more responsible cyber actor have not yielded positive results.

The U.S. will still need to prioritize national security over commercial considerations when assessing what technologies with potential military applications, such as AI, to sell to China. It also needs to restructure its export control policies and mechanisms. Conversely, the U.S. government must apply this prudent approach more comprehensively for those Chinese-linked products and services it purchases.

U.S. government agencies still rely on firms subject to Chinese influence for critical IT functions even though Chinese regulations mandate that foreign companies operating in China store data locally and provide full access to their data to government investigators. In recent years, Chinese-based hackers have exploited vulnerabilities in cloud-based systems to breach the email and other networks of dozens of private companies and U.S. government agencies.

U.S. officials should address congressional concerns that the Department of Defense and other federal agencies and programs are contracting with IT providers with extensive commercial activities in China. Companies such as SAP Concur, which store the data for the cloud products they offer in China, are too risky to use. A priority for next year should be curtailing U.S. government ties with China-linked companies, in addition to enhancing federal cybersecurity protocols and data protection policies.

Additionally, some U.S. government agencies and programs still depend on Chinese drone companies, such as Da Jiang Innovations and Autel Robotics, even though China can readily access these firms’ data. That is why Congress should consider legislation such as the bipartisan American Security Drone Act, which would prohibit the federal government from purchasing drones manufactured in countries identified as national security threats, like China.

While the U.S. interest in reining in China’s export of narcotics, militarization of AI, and harassment of U.S. warships and warplanes is understandable, it is less clear why the U.S. has not made curtailing China’s destabilizing nuclear weapons buildup a higher priority.

China is expanding the size, diversity, accuracy, readiness, and other capabilities of its nuclear forces more rapidly than any other country. The Chinese military has already doubled its warhead stockpile in the last few years and is building hundreds of additional missile silos. China is also modernizing its strategic submarines and bombers to carry more warheads at greater distances.

At the same time, China’s communist leaders have resisted worldwide calls to negotiate limits on their buildup or make their nuclear capabilities and intentions more transparent. The Chinese have not explained the reasons behind their nuclear expansion — or its endpoint.

In the new year and beyond, U.S. officials must make greater exertions to curtail this buildup, which reduces strategic predictability, crisis stability, and restraints on further nuclear proliferation.

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Hudson’s Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.

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