As U.S. trade officials meet with their Chinese counterparts this week, our policymakers must not seek politically attractive, short-term gains at the expense of sound, long-term solutions. Specifically, our trade policy should not take precedent over our national security; they need to run parallel to each other.
My professional experience is not in trade, but in national security; however, these two issues intersect on U.S.-China relations. The trade negotiations will take place at the same time as the Chinese national legislature considers a bill to protect foreign intellectual property and ban technology transfers. Congress and the administration, however, should not be taken in by this legislation, which is vague on details in its current form and is being rushed through the National People’s Congress. There is no reason to believe the Chinese will alter their strategy of steadily eroding Western advantages in the technology sector.
Chinese officials and technology manufacturers have long been guilty of serious violations — to include threats to our national security and privacy. Independent review commissions, Department of Justice indictments and domestic and foreign intelligence agencies continue to document the growing scope of intellectual property theft, illegal intrusions into American computer systems, attempted acquisition of sensitive military data and blatant stealing of military technologies.
The guilty parties in many of the cases are not independent actors; they are state-backed enterprises seeking to probe and exploit weaknesses in our public and private institutions. Many of China’s global tech leaders, such as Huawei, Lenovo and ZTE, while privately run on paper and publicly traded, are partially owned, directly supported and tasked by the Communist government. China law requires technology companies to directly cooperate with domestic intelligence authorities.
Common sense says that we must assume that government-owned companies will act in deference to their investors — the Chinese government. They clearly have. The appropriation of American technology remains a top goal of Chinese officials, who believe it will help their nation achieve economic parity with, weaken and eventually overtake the United States.
Huawei, whose president has longstanding ties to the Chinese military, has been accused by Cisco, Motorola and T-Mobile for stealing trade secrets; T-Mobile won a civil suit against Huawei last year, and the Justice Department is currently pursuing a criminal case for its conduct against the company.
Last April, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported that Lenovo “has been linked to Chinese state-led cyberespionage efforts.” A 2016 study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence directorate said that Lenovo “could introduce compromised hardware into the Defense Department supply chain, posing cyber espionage risks”
In 2015, the Navy replaced servers on destroyers after they had been purchased by Lenovo, over concerns they could be compromised. Additionally, in September 2017, Lenovo settled charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that the company harmed consumers by installing software in hundreds of thousands of personal computers that had the ability to access a user’s logins, Social Security numbers and medical and financial information.
Last year, the Commerce Department fined ZTE $1 billion for illegally exporting American technology into foreign markets — to Iran and North Korea, both under U.S. sanctions. The company’s products have long been scrutinized for its privacy safeguards for American consumers; last year, before Congress, the directors of the FBI, CIA and NSA said American citizens should not use ZTE (or Huawei) phones (government, contracting and military personnel are banned from using their technology).
None of the above even touches on the Chinese intelligence agencies’ nonstop efforts to acquire military secrets, weaken our security and diminish our ability to protect our cyber networks.
Against this backdrop, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin should not prioritize securing trade agreements at the cost of turning a blind eye to the continuing misconduct of Chinese actors in the technology sector. There is no evidence that any trade deal or tariff agreement will change this behavior in a positive direction or diminish the various threats we face.
If anything, American policy should focus on getting tougher against foreign actors who violate privacy, export and other U.S. laws and regulations. While several U.S. defense and intelligence agencies have banned the use of Chinese-owned equipment manufactured by documented violators, our policymakers should consider broader bans on products developed by these companies. Too much is at risk to do too little.
• James “Spider” Marks, a retired U.S. Army major general, was a senior intelligence officer in combat for Operation Iraqi Freedom and was a Chinese foreign area specialist while stationed in Asia.