Why the Biden Administration Should Keep the “Clean Network” Initiative

Two cell phone towers in front of a blue sky
Kabiur Rahman Riyad/Unsplash

A significant aim of U.S. foreign policy today is balancing China, both militarily and economically. In recent years, China has asserted itself in the South China Sea, extended its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, and made advances in the tech sector. In response, in August last year, the U.S. State Department introduced the Clean Network initiative, “a comprehensive approach to safeguarding the nation’s assets including citizens’ privacy and companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.” The initiative offers protections for telecommunications, including cell carriers, cloud services, and undersea cables.

The U.S. policy on 5G conforms to a host of foreign policy decisions directed against China during the Trump Administration, which is currently under review by the Biden administration. But discontinuing this program would be a mistake. The Clean Network is not only part of a broader strategy on 5G, but it can help curb Chinese influence in the fields of security, trade, and development finance.

Why You Should Care About Who Owns Telecommunications

An ideological contest—democracy vs. autocracy—underpins the debate on telecommunications. German Chancellor Angela Merkel summed it up nicely when she stated: “Data is the raw material of the 21st century, and the question ‘Who owns that data?’ will decide in the end whether democracy, a participatory social model, and economic prosperity can be combined.”

Merkel’s statement highlights the political stakes of telecommunications and the concerns shared by the many companies and more than 60 states that are part of Clean Network. They fear that a 5G technological structure owned and operated by an authoritarian regime will inherently adopt some of its characteristics, namely censorship and a lack of transparency. Recent examples such as China’s Social Credit System and policy on national social governance reflect ideological differences that conflict with democratic norms and values.

Critics assert that companies such as Huawei are willing to sign “no-spy” agreements with willing partners, but corporate assurances mean nothing when the company is bound to the laws of an authoritarian government. 

Think of it this way: if you don’t want Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg storing and using your data, why would you allow an authoritarian regime to? 

The Clean Network Goes Beyond Tech

The Clean Network builds consensus on standards and security where technology has created a void in international policy and regulation. 5G offers the reduced latency, speed and capacity required to support the future of technological innovation in biotech, Artificial Intelligence, and, most importantly, supporting big data for smart cities. Unfortunately, 5G’s capacity is exactly what could make it a critical security vulnerability. The U.S. seeks to maintain its military preeminence and fears that China will gain an advantage by exploiting “backdoors” in 5G to “conduct widespread espionage… and disrupt critical infrastructure.” Ensuring that allies and partners share the same network standards is critical where telecommunications can be exploited. A number of NATO countries have already joined the initiative.

An American Digital “Belt and Road”?

Although the specific intent of the Clean Network initiative is to counter growing Chinese influence in the digital realm, it has the ability to limit Chinese sway globally. Just as China’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to expand its foreign policy influence through global infrastructure development, the Clean Network’s impact already extends beyond telecommunications, as it is helping to strengthen U.S. relations with Latin America and the Indo-Pacific. This places some unexpected actors in the vanguard on digital security: namely aid programs, development finance and banks. The U.S. struck deals with Ecuador and Brazil that will assist in refinancing development loans and promote business opportunities, particularly in 5G telecommunications. Both countries joined the initiative in November. Further, the U.S. has extended its reach to the Indo-Pacific, where it has financed a transoceanic cable to connect to Singapore, Indonesia, and markets in Southwest Asia and the Pacific.

Such financing will not only incentivize countries to join the initiative, but it will also work to counter Chinese influence globally. American development financing and clean telecommunications provided by Clean Network members will give developing countries alternatives to Chinese development loans.

The Road Ahead

Critics claim the U.S. Clean Network initiative puts momentum behind a “Splinternet” – a fractured global network – and has politicized technology in order to “score short-term” political points. This characterization creates an insidious divide between technology and politics. Politicization of technology is not new; technology always has social consequences which governments must manage. The control and manipulation of technology by an authoritarian regime with a poor record on human rights and history of digital espionage should stir a collective response— which is exactly what the Clean Network initiative seeks to do.

The Biden Administration should maintain this policy to protect our global telecommunications and create new partnerships, all while gaining influence in the process.

The views expressed in this material are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

Cara Fitzgerald is a Fellow at the Center for Global Ethics & Politics, The Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and a PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

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