Banning TickTok in the US: Technationalism or a Looming Tech Cold War? 

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By Allawi Ssemanda

After what appears to be a systematic and sustained campaign against Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, over what US authorities call security concerns, the US and some of her western allies turned their focus to other Chinese tech firms, TikTok being the latest victim. Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a bill giving President Joe Biden powers to ban Chinese-owned app, TikTok, claiming the app could pose security risks.

In the so-called Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communication Technology Act or the RESTRICT Act, US secretary of Commerce will be given sweeping powers to regulate or ban technology that originates from countries the US considers adversarial: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela.

While the White House has expressed explicit support for the Restrict Act, branding it “a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to the security and safety of Americans,” if critically analysed, the Act bears all signs of Washington’s need to protect US tech firms which, analysts argue, are facing stiff competition from Chinese tech firms. Not surprisingly, according to the Pew Research Centre, in 2022 and 2023, TikTok has been voted the world’s most popular app, generating over 672 million downloads.  Therefore, one can argue that the US sees TikTok as a threat to the survival of American tech firms which U.S political leaders are trying, using nationalistic legislation.

The trouble with such moves is that they not only deny Americans opportunities to make a choice, they are also against World Trade Organisation (WTO) laws, and give the US an upper hand in international trade.  For example, Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, which the US has been using to target foreign firms, especially Chinese ones, as we saw under the Trump Administration, gives the US trade representative (USTR) too much power while defining an actionable foreign trade practice. Moreover, the same Section 301 allows the president of the US to take action to remedy any “act, policy, or practice of a foreign country is unreasonable(sic) or discriminatory and burdens or restricts United States commerce.” Worse still, the section subsequently defines “unreasonable” as simply “otherwise unfair and inequitable.” As international law professor Alan Sykes argued, the choice of words used in this Act “can encompass virtually any foreign government practice unilaterally deemed objectionable by the United States,” and can as well be abused to facilitate political opportunism.

Indeed, a study by Washington-based CATO Institute concluded that President Trump used this Act to target Chinese firms by imposing what the institute described as baseless and unfair tariffs, stressing that, for political reasons, “in the Trump years, section 301 simply became a tool to punish other countries, force them to agree to U.S demands, or impose tariffs—no free trade objective needed.”

While the U.S and her allies continue to defend their stance against Chinese firms, based on what they call security concerns, early this year, UK’s security agencies concluded that any risk posed by Chinese firms, such as Huawei and TikTok, are manageable.

Relatedly, Republican politicians have consistently indicated that playing the “China Card”, plays well for their re-election bids. With Biden’s approval rating at just 42%, and Trump having announced his White House re-election bid, one can argue that the Biden administration is doing everything possible to appease hawks in Washington by playing the “China card.” Therefore, Chinese firms, such TikTok and Huawei, are not only victims of a slow but steady development of US tech-protectionism and latest attempt to change the current global order, they are also victims of a US smear campaign.

A paper by the Washington DC-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2020, entitled US – Japan Technology Policy Coordination: Balancing Technonationalism with Globalized World, argues that the stance of the US against Chinese tech firms is a result of China’s growing technology knowhow, and the US is approaching China’s development with fear and suppression. The paper further argues that the formerly technological giants, “Japan and the United States, have watched warily as China’s economic heft has grown and as the technological sophistication of its manufacturing base has increased,” leaving the US more worried and fearful that China is winning this important technological revolution, and leading Washington to overreact. In the same paper, Carnegie scholars argue that the “fear of losing this competition is fuelling an unprecedented scale of investment and a zero-sum mentality that could tempt countries to overreact in ways that would damage their national interests and broader global interests.”

Therefore, while the U.S may want to influence the West to cut ties with China, in an effort ensure the U.S is not aged in the 4th Industrial tech revolution, the U.S does not need to upend globalization to compete effectively with China, as this would potentially cause other far-reaching effects to other countries.

Whereas President Biden came promising to end unilateralism and embrace globalization, which is characterised by free and fair trade, the support the White House is giving the so-called Restrict Act, which targets Chinese tech firms, shows that the Biden administration is reluctant to abandon the Trump-era protectionist policies and trade war. Unilateral targeting of Chinese tech firms, for whatever reason, is unacceptable, and hurts both sides, as was the case with rump’s trade tariffs.

As president Xi Jinping once observed, today, we “need to jointly create an enabling international environment for development. Protectionist moves will boomerang; anyone attempting to form exclusive blocs will end up isolating himself;… and practices of decoupling and supply disruption are neither feasible nor sustainable. It is important that we pursue development in real earnest and promote development in concert, build an open world economy, and shape a global governance system and institutional environment that are more just and equitable so as to build a community of [a] shared future and prosperity for mankind.

Allawi Ssemanda is a Senior Research Fellow at Development Watch Centre.


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