This week, armed clashes erupted between the forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan, exacerbating already serious tensions in the Caucasus. The underlying reason for the latest incident is the long‐standing struggle between the two countries for control of Ngorno‐Karabakh. That ethnically Armenian region is legally part of Azerbaijan, but Armenia assumes responsibility for guaranteeing the minority enclave’s self‐declared political independence. The inherently unstable arrangement has led to several previous outbreaks of violence over the past three decades, but the latest incident seems especially serious. Both countries have declared martial law and commenced full military mobilization. “We are a step away from a large‐scale war,” warns Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group, an NGO focused on preventing and resolving deadly conflicts.
The default assumption of most Americans might be that this obscure dispute is a parochial spat that has little or no relevance to the interests of the United States, and normally that would be the case. However, fellow NATO member Turkey has injected itself into the conflict, declaring its “complete support” for Azerbaijan and placing total blame on Armenia for the fighting. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan criticized Turkey for its “aggressive behavior” and demanded that the Turks stay out of the matter. Since Turkey is a much larger power than either Armenia or Azerbaijan, its direct involvement would signal a major expansion of the conflict.
Ankara’s declaration especially creates the danger of a showdown between Turkey and Russia, since Moscow regards Armenia as a client, if not an outright protectorate. The mere possibility of an armed confrontation between a NATO member and Russia is cause for alarm, since Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty considers an attack on any alliance member as an attack on all. A military incident between Turkey and Russia would require the United States to sort‐out which party was guilty of aggression, and if it appeared that Moscow had initiated the clash, Washington would have an obligation to come to Turkey’s defense.
A responsible member of NATO would be cautious about putting its security partners in such a position. But Turkey, under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is an increasingly volatile and irresponsible international actor. Thanks to Ankara’s recent behavior in the eastern Mediterranean, NATO’s old nightmare of a war between Greece and Turkey has resurfaced as a prominent worry for the Alliance. Erdogan’s regime also is engaging in high‐profile meddling in Libya’s civil war—again adopting a stance that puts Turkish strategy in direct opposition to the faction that Russia is backing.
Both Ankara and Moscow can be faulted for their conduct in Libya, but Turkey is clearly the more disruptive player in the Caucasus. The Kremlin is urging both Armenia and Azerbaijan to de‐escalate the fighting, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is attempting to play the role of mediator. Erdogan’s government, on the other hand, appears determined to back Azerbaijan, even if that stance leads to an expanded and more deadly war.
The United States and other leading NATO powers need to send Erdogan a blunt message that they have no intention of allowing themselves to become entangled in a conflict with Russia over a chronic dispute between a Turkish client state and its long‐time regional adversary. This latest problem also would be a good occasion to emphasize to Ankara that its disruptive behavior toward Greece, its ill‐advised meddling in Libya, and now its destabilizing role in the Caucasus is making it difficult—if not impossible—to regard Turkey as a NATO member in good standing.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the entire rationale for the United States to continue its obligation to defend more than two‐dozen NATO allies, including strategically irrelevant mini‐states, makes less and less sense in the twenty‐first century. But being obligated to defend an “ally” that seems determined to create more, rather than less, international turmoil is the essence of folly. Turkey’s disruptive behavior in the Caucasus is just the latest reason for U.S. leaders to downgrade America’s relationship with that country.
A few weeks ago, I noted that Congress had just earmarked billions of taxpayer dollars for American semiconductor manufacturers to counter the alleged (and thus far empty) national security threat posed by heavily‐subsidized Chinese competitors. The U.S. subsidies, as you can imagine, have been cheered by both conservative fans of industrial policy and the semiconductor industry, which just released a new report on how “government incentives” will (obviously) help (historically healthy and productive) U.S. semiconductor companies somehow “turn the tide” against China. A recent writeup in The Protocol sets out the industry’s response to critics like me:
[Semiconductor Industry Association CEO John] Neuffer sought to address some of the biggest criticisms of the plan. “There’s this concern that it’s a race to the bottom with subsidies,” he said, referring to the idea that China and the U.S. could keep upping subsidies ad infinitum. “Well, that race began 20 years ago, and we’re still standing at the starting line saying ‘Gee, I wonder if we should get into the race.’ ”
Well then. Now, leaving aside the questionable (at best) efficacy of both the current Chinese subsidies and past U.S. government support for our semiconductor industry, as well as the economic and legal (trade law) concerns raised by the “global subsidies race” more broadly, what’s perhaps most striking about the current push by the politicians, the economic nationalists, and the lobbyists to bolster U.S. chipmakers is the absence of any discussion of one actual policy that has been actually proven to supercharge the industry and is being hobbled by the federal government as we speak: high‐skill immigration. Indeed, a new Georgetown University report underscores the importance of immigration for the semiconductor industry, finding that–
- Approximately 40 percent of high‐skilled semiconductor workers in the United States were born abroad. India is the most common place of origin among foreign‐born workers, followed by China.
- In 2011, 87 percent of semiconductor patents awarded to top U.S. universities had at least one foreign‐born inventor. Between 2000 and 2010, the United States enjoyed a net influx of about 100,000 electrical engineering patent holders, while India and China saw large net outflows.
- International students comprise around two‐thirds of graduate students in electrical engineering and computer science, the top educational fields feeding into the U.S. semiconductor industry among green card applicants. The number of American students enrolled in semiconductor‐ related graduate programs (around 90,000) has not increased since 1990. In that same period, the number of international students nearly tripled from 50,000 to 140,000.
- More than 80 percent of international Ph.D. graduates from semiconductor‐related fields at U.S. universities stay in the country after completing their degrees. Stay rates are highest among Indian and Chinese doctoral recipients.
Clearly, high‐skill immigration (both workers and students) has been a boon for the American semiconductor industry — a finding consistent with analyses showing how educated immigrants boost U.S. innovation and productivity more generally. (As well as past work by the SIA.) By contrast, new research reveals that past high‐skill immigration restrictions push U.S. multinational corporations to move their R&D activities offshore, to increase these activities in other countries (including in China), and thus to diminish the United States’ own innovative capacity. This outcome is particularly relevant for U.S. chipmakers and their current concerns about China: human capital is arguably the Chinese semiconductor industry’s biggest hurdle, and the Georgetown paper finds that “China has so far struggled to attract talent from the United States” and to retain that talent once it’s on the mainland. As such, “[l]arge reductions in the flow of talent between China and the United States would likely be welcomed by Chinese policymakers.” Indeed.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration and its allies are not just ignoring high‐skill immigration, but actively working to restrict it further — even as COVID-19 hasn’t boosted unemployment in the U.S. tech sector. Given these facts, as well as the alleged threat facing the U.S. semiconductor industry (and by extension national security), you’d think that the ones making such allegations — in Congress, the industry, and the policy community — would at least mention immigration instead of just cheering for subsidies.
Or maybe the China threat just isn’t as big as they claim?
U.S. and other Western leaders have long worried about what to do if an armed conflict ever erupted between two NATO members. Rapidly rising tensions between Greece and Turkey, primarily involving a maritime dispute over oil, natural gas, and other resources under the eastern Mediterranean, have brought that nightmare to the surface once again. Germany’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, warned both governments in late August against further military escalation. “Fire is being played with and any small spark could lead to catastrophe,” he stressed.
The heart of the North Atlantic Treaty is Article 5, which proclaims that an attack on any member of the Alliance will be considered an attack on all. The underlying assumption is that there would then be a collective response to repel and punish the aggressor. Obviously, that approach would not work if two NATO signatories went to war against each other. Even determining which country was the aggressor and which the victim could be quite challenging.
Throughout NATO’s history, the greatest risk of an intra‐alliance conflict has always been one involving Greece and Turkey. Although both countries joined NATO in 1952, mutual membership in that security partnership did not erase the centuries of animosity between the two populations. Athens and Ankara have nearly come to blows on several occasions, most notably when Turkey invaded majority‐Greek Cyprus in 1974, proceeded to occupy nearly 40 percent of the island, and expelled Greek Cypriots from that territory. The occupation continues to this day.
There have been several lesser, but still worrisome, incidents over the years. Among other problems, Turkish military planes continuously violate Greek airspace. Athens then sends its fighter planes up to intercept and challenge the Turkish aircraft—in some years as many as 2,000 times. Thus far, there have been no armed clashes, but as I’ve written elsewhere, similar games of aerial “chicken” involving the United States and such countries as Russia and China are extremely reckless. One such episode between U.S. and Chinese planes in 2001 resulted in a midair collision that killed the Chinese pilot and created an ugly diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing. All it would take is one miscalculation by a Greek or Turkish pilot to trigger a similar (or worse) crisis between Athens and Ankara.
The Cyprus episode suggests what Washington’s reaction would be to the outbreak of a Greco‐Turkish armed conflict. Under the guidance of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the United States pressured both countries to dampen their quarrel, and Kissinger used maximum leverage to get the other NATO members to adopt the same position. However, Kissinger’s stance was far from neutral. Even though Turkey had been the aggressor, the United States soon tilted in favor of Ankara’s position. Congressional anger compelled Gerald Ford’s administration to implement sanctions against the Turkish government, but the White House moved inexorably to dilute those measures as quickly as possible. That approach continued under Jimmy Carter’s administration, and by the beginning of the 1980s, the restrictions were effectively moot.
Washington’s response reflected the belief that Turkey was a much more important ally than Greece in terms of strategic considerations. There is little reason to believe that the U.S. attitude has changed. Even if a Biden administration would not share Donald Trump’s apparent admiration for Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both security and economic calculations would push Washington toward that conclusion.
There is one important difference, though, between the Cyprus crisis and a possible new confrontation between Athens and Ankara. Key NATO powers, most notably France and Italy, are not happy about Erdogan’s increasingly undemocratic rule and his government’s maverick, often pro‐Russian, behavior on security issues. In addition, France has openly challenged Turkey’s territorial and resource claims in the eastern Mediterranean, and in late August, French warships and planes joined a joint military exercise with Greece and Cyprus to convey a blunt message of displeasure to Ankara. Washington may find it far more difficult today to drag its NATO allies into taking a pro‐Turkish stance in case of an armed confrontation between Greece and Turkey than it did in 1974.
The mere prospect of a possible Greco‐Turkish war underscores one of the major drawbacks of the United States being the leader of a nearly 30‐member military alliance. America automatically is entangled in the grievances and quarrels of every one of those members. And when two members openly hate each other, that situation can create not only a headache but an outright nightmare for the United States.
The rapid deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship makes understanding China’s approaches to military strategy and nuclear deterrence all the more pressing. The Department of Defense (DoD) annual report on China’s military power offers a helpful snapshot for policymakers and analysts to keep tabs on how the U.S. military assesses China’s military plans, intentions, and strategy.
The nuclear section of the latest DoD report, which was released yesterday, contains several important pieces of information about China’s nuclear arsenal and approach to deterrence. Some of this information undercuts the threat inflation proffered by high‐ranking officials in the Trump administration, while other bits of information paint a concerning picture about potential sources of U.S.-China nuclear instability.
The Good: Lower Warhead Count
Unlike past DoD reports on China, the 2020 report provides an estimated number for China’s total nuclear warheads, placing the count in the “low 200s.” This estimate is lower than open source estimates that place the warhead count closer to 300.
The starting number is important because administration officials have repeatedly warned that China wants to double the size of its nuclear arsenal over the next ten years. Past U.S. predictions of large increases to China’s nuclear arsenal have been proven false so it would be wise to take current warnings of doubling with a grain of salt. But even if the DoD is correct this time around, a doubling from a lower baseline estimate represents a less significant threat to the United States than a doubling from a higher baseline. Even if China doubles from the higher estimate of 300 warheads, it will pale in comparison to the more than 1,300 deployed U.S. nuclear warheads.
Baseline warhead estimates and allegations of doubling it in ten years may sound like Dr. Strangelove‐like minutiae, but it has real consequences for U.S. military planning and arms control. China’s nuclear ambitions have seeped into the Trump administration’s negotiations with Russia to extend the New START agreement, which caps Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear warheads, by demanding that Moscow convince Beijing to come to the negotiating table or risk the deal collapsing. Senior administration officials have repeatedly invoked the “doubling in ten years” line in this arms control context to inflate the threat of China’s nonparticipation in New START‐style warhead caps.
The Bad: Launch on Warning
More concerning, however, is the DoD report’s claim that China might be shifting to a launch on warning (LOW) nuclear posture. The report states that China is expanding the number of nuclear missiles based in stationary silos, which are more vulnerable to attack and destruction than mobile missiles carried by trucks or in submarines. Recent improvements to China’s early warning systems make a LOW posture possible via early detection of incoming attack, thereby allowing Chinese units to launch their missiles before they are destroyed. The 2020 report argues that China would not be increasing its stock of vulnerable, silo‐based missiles unless it had a LOW system in place to offset the increase in vulnerability.
The report’s evidence for China shifting to LOW is thin, but Chinese policymakers and strategists alike have expressed concern about the tension of maintaining a small nuclear arsenal that can be an effective deterrent. Advances in both U.S. missile defense capabilities and rapid, conventional strike are especially worrying to Beijing because they allow Washington to reduce the survivability of China’s nuclear arsenal without using nuclear weapons.
Moving to LOW is one way to address this tension while technically adhering to China’s long‐held no first use of nuclear weapons policy—under LOW China is still being attacked first, it’s just getting a retaliation strike off before it suffers damage. However, LOW also reduces time for decision making. The whole point of LOW is to fire missiles before they can be taken out, but there are only minutes to give a launch order if an incoming strike is detected. The United States and Soviet Union adopted LOW postures for most of the Cold War, which experienced several accidental detections or system malfunctions that could have triggered a major nuclear exchange by accident. China moving to LOW would not exactly replicate this Cold War problem, but it would make any crisis or conflict between the United States and China more dangerous by increasing the risk of accidental escalation.
The United States could reduce some of the risks associated with China’s potential shift to a LOW posture by thinking carefully about its military strategy toward China. The LOW temptation is in large part due to the U.S. approach to warfare that could hold Chinese nuclear forces at risk without using U.S. nuclear weapons. The conventional threat to China’s nuclear forces could easily grow now that the United States has left the Intermediate‐range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which frees it to deploy longer‐range, land‐based missiles in East Asia. If these future missiles target Chinese military installations that are deep in the center of the country, then Beijing will face a strong incentive to move more of its nuclear force to a LOW posture.
The 2020 DoD report on China’s military power should be applauded for the level of detailed, unclassified information it presents on China’s nuclear forces and approach to deterrence. Understanding China’s nuclear strategy is the first step toward crafting U.S. policies that prevent a nuclear exchange between the two countries as their general relationship sinks deeper into acrimony and the risk of armed conflict increases.
While the lower warhead estimate is welcome news, China shifting to a LOW posture would not be in America’s interest. Military planners in Washington should seriously consider how the U.S. approach to conventional warfighting interact with Chinese nuclear thinking if they want to develop strategies that deter while minimizing the likelihood of accidental or inadvertent nuclear escalation.
On August 19, a Russian Su‐27 fighter intercepted two U.S. surveillance planes flying near Russia’s Black Sea coast. It was the sixth such incident in that region over the past four weeks, and it followed a similar foray earlier in the day farther north off the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. The use of spy planes in that fashion is not terribly unusual to test the radar defenses and gain additional intelligence on countries that are considered U.S. adversaries. But such a flurry of flights over a short period of time is not typical, and it raises questions about the possible rationale.
As I discussed in a recent National Interest Online article, it also is a needlessly reckless practice. Following a July 30 episode over the Black Sea, U.S. officials claimed that the Russian Su‐27 “buzzed” the American aircraft, creating a serious safety hazard. It is a frequent U.S. complaint following such encounters.
Both sides can be faulted for the provocations that arise from intrusive flights near the borders of the other country, but the United States deserves the bulk of the blame. Granted, Russian aircraft have sometimes conducted provocative aerial approaches to U.S. territory, especially near Alaska, and the frequency of that behavior seems to be growing. Nevertheless, the number of such incidents is dwarfed by the surge in U.S. military activity along Russia’s borders. In other words, most of the encounters are taking place near Russia and thousands of miles away from the American homeland.
One would think that U.S. military and political leaders would exercise greater caution. Indeed, the current crop of officials should have learned that lesson from the April 2001 crisis that erupted when a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter. That incident led to a very tense confrontation between Beijing and Washington and hardliners on both sides engaged in shameless jingoism. Fortunately, more sober officials in George W. Bush’s administration prevailed and resolved the quarrel through diplomacy.
It is a safe bet, though, that given the current extent of hostility toward Russia among America’s opinion elites, hawkish types would be even more likely to magnify any crisis involving a similar incident. There would be massive political and media pressure on the White House to take an uncompromising stance against Moscow and “stand up to Vladimir Putin.”
Ratcheting‐up the number of surveillance flights near Russia is especially unwise now, given the turbulence in neighboring Belarus as demonstrators try to unseat the country’s longtime autocratic ruler. Belarus is an important Kremlin client state, and Putin already has issued a pointed warning to Western governments not to meddle in that country’s affairs. Relations between Russia and the West, which have been deteriorating for years, are especially tense at the moment. An incident similar to the 2001 episode with China could easily escalate out of control.
It is highly unlikely that the information gathered from spy planes flying off of the Russian coast add so much to the intelligence already available from satellites and other means that it is worth the risk of an aerial collision and the dangerous diplomatic and military fallout that would ensue. The Pentagon needs to stop its provocative conduct immediately.
The following analysis was originally published via the East‐West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin series. To see the original PDF of this article on East‐West Center’s website follow this link.
Washington’s withdrawal from the Intermediate‐Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in early August 2019 frees it to deploy long‐range, ground‐launched missiles for the first time since 1988, when the now‐defunct treaty entered into force. Russian violations prompted the United States to withdraw from the INF Treaty, but China’s unconstrained development of nuclear and conventional missiles played a supporting role in the U.S. decision. As the United States and China sink deeper into confrontation and competition, debates over U.S. deployment of missiles in East Asia will become more pressing.
The U.S. ability to deploy ground‐based, intermediate‐range (in the 500 to 5,500 km range) missiles in East Asia is heavily dependent on its allies. The United States can deploy missiles on its own territory in the region without difficulty. However, the long distances from U.S. territories such as Guam or the Aleutians and a shorter list of deployment areas would make the missiles more expensive and counteract major operational benefits of mobility and survivability. If ground‐based missiles can only be deployed on U.S. territory, then it will be relatively easier for Beijing to locate and target them than if the missiles could be spread across the region on allies’ territory. Moreover, allies might only agree to deploy certain types of missiles while rejecting other types, which could have knock‐on effects for U.S.-China nuclear stability and approaches to conventional deterrence. It is therefore imperative for U.S. policymakers and defense planners to seriously consider the political and military positions of East Asian allies when crafting America’s intermediate‐range missile posture. Initial evidence suggests that the United States has an uphill battle ahead.
Ground‐Based Missiles and Allies in Great Power Competition
America’s allies in East Asia have not greeted the death of the INF Treaty with much enthusiasm. Both Australia and South Korea were quick to note that there were no plans to discuss U.S. deployments in the wake of the withdrawal announcement. No U.S. treaty allies have categorically refused to consider future deployments, but they have not been pressing Washington to get missiles fielded either.
Allies’ muted response to the INF Treaty’s demise is markedly different from Washington’s enthusiasm for a more robust military posture in East Asia. The lack of strong support from friendly governments stands in sharp contrast to U.S. fears about China’s military rise, the need for greater defense investments in the region, and deepening great power competition. Why is there an imbalance between the U.S. enthusiasm for a more robust military posture in East Asia and allies’ lukewarm response to supporting ground‐based missile deployments?
U.S. allies have not shied away from demanding reassurances when faced with significant threats. A great example of this is NATO’s push to get the United States to deploy intermediate‐range nuclear missiles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. European NATO countries were acutely worried about the ability of Soviet intermediate‐range missiles to reduce the credibility of U.S. security commitments. This prompted NATO allies to push hard on the Carter administration to move forward on deploying similar capabilities as a political signal of U.S. security guarantees.
America’s allies in modern day East Asia face a very different set of circumstances. Growing acrimony between Washington and Beijing has not yet changed many allies’ strategies of trying to have good relations with both countries. It is also much harder for U.S. allies to disentangle their economies from China, which exposes them to greater risk of economic retaliation from Beijing should they wholeheartedly welcome U.S. missile deployments. Moreover, China’s military threat in the region is primarily conventional and in the gray zone, which compared to Soviet theater nuclear forces in the Cold War is easier for allies to hedge against even with their limited defense resources.
None of these circumstances are set in stone, and U.S. allies could change their tunes and vociferously demand U.S. missile deployments in the future. However, the initial reaction to the end of the INF Treaty suggests a gap between U.S. calls for a stronger military response to great power competition and allies’ perspectives on what is required to deter Chinese aggression.
Constructing Friendly A2/AD in East Asia
U.S. ground‐based missiles can still make a positive contribution to conventional deterrence in East Asia, but deployment considerations need to take alliance limitations into account. Adopting a restrained approach to U.S. missile deployments that emphasizes denying the Chinese navy from achieving control over the western Pacific would improve deterrence without causing undue friction with allies. The strategic goal of these deployments would be to help create friendly anti‐access/area denial (A2/AD) zones in East Asia that the United States and its allies could use to counteract Chinese naval and air force power projection. Such a strategy would prioritize large numbers of land‐based anti‐ship missiles deployed widely across allied territory that is relatively close to China.
The United States’ East Asia allies already have a head start on implementing friendly A2/AD and are therefore more likely to accept U.S. deployments that mirror their own. Japan’s strategy for protecting its southwestern islands, for example, places a heavy emphasis on ground‐based anti‐ship missiles. Australia’s recently released force structure plan and defense strategic update call for adding similar capabilities to improve maritime security. The U.S. Marine Corps’ 2030 force posture assessment also speaks highly of land‐based missiles that can enable relatively light, mobile units to strike enemy warships at great distance.
The United States should push on this open door. Emulating allies’ plans for land‐based missile forces should make U.S. deployments of similar capabilities more palatable to friendly administrations. Moreover, a narrowly defined role and target set for U.S. missile capabilities improves conventional deterrence while avoiding the nuclear escalation risks inherent with missiles that target facilities deeper in China’s interior. If allies are still hesitant to let the United States deploy missiles on their territory, then joint development—like the U.S.-Japan effort on the SM-3 IIA missile defense interceptor—could be a viable alternative.
Restraint should guide U.S. missile strategy in the post‐INF world. East Asian allies have not rolled out the welcome mat for new deployments. Washington should be mindful of this and focus its efforts on emulating allied land‐based missile strategy that has thus far emphasized creating friendly A2/AD zones.
Donald Trump has made good on his threats against Chinese‐owned tech companies, issuing executive orders that aim to effectively ban not only the popular video sharing app and platform TikTok, but also the Chinese‐owned messaging app WeChat as of September 20. The former is a platform for speech and expression used by millions of Americans, but the order targeting the latter may ultimately be even more disruptive. WeChat’s massive popularity in China—it’s the most popular app in the country by a huge margin, with more than a billion users worldwide—makes it an essential tool for Americans (and visitors) communicating with family, friends, and business contacts there. WeChat isn’t just used for messaging either: it’s also a major payment platform with hundreds of millions of active users (vastly more than domestic equivalents like Apple Pay), which makes the order barring “transactions” with the company a grievous self‐inflicted blow to any American company trying to compete in Asian markets. It will also disadvantage American makers of mobile devices, who will be stuck trying to sell Asian consumers hardware on which they may not be able to easily install the single most popular piece of software.
And while the “national security” case for targeting TikTok may be little more than an effort to benefit American corporations by forcing the app’s parent company, ByteDance, to sell it off on the cheap, it is harder to see how WeChat, with its primarily Chinese user base, could spin off its American operations as a separate, viable company. Concerns that the app is a target for Chinese surveillance are at least more reasonable in the case of WeChat than TikTok, but insofar as users in the U.S. are most often using it to communicate with people in China, that’s a risk that applies equally to traditional phone calls and text messages: When you communicate with people in another country, there’s a risk that country’s government will be listening in. Moreover, the order will do nothing to address its putative concern that WeChat is used to monitor the “personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States”—most of whom will presumably arrive in the U.S. with their own mobile devices and software brought from home. The TikTok order is similarly incoherent: It notes that many federal agencies have already (and reasonably) barred the app’s installation on government devices, which is meant to underscore the seriousness of the threat, but leaves it mysterious why Americans who don’t work for the government must be forbidden from making their own decisions about whether the app poses an unacceptable risk.
This is a radical departure from the position the United States has always previously adopted, and still reflected on the Web site of the United States Trade Representative, in a “fact sheet” posted earlier this year:
When governments impose unnecessary barriers to cross‐border data flows or discriminate against foreign digital services, local firms are often hurt the most, as they cannot take advantage of cross‐border digital services that facilitate global competitiveness.
The USTR specifically condemns China’s “sweeping restrictions on cross‐border data transfers and broad‐based data localization mandates.” Yet the logic of the Executive Orders is effectively a demand for data localization. If TikTok can be sanctioned because of the mere theoretical possibility that the company could be ordered to share data stored in the U.S. with China, then virtually any foreign‐owned technology company operating in the U.S. could be similarly targeted. (And since, like China, the United States allows the government to secretly demand foreigners’ data from U.S. firms without warrants, other countries would be amply justified in targeting our companies in turn.) After decades of demanding that other countries allow American companies to compete fairly in their markets, we have announced a policy of passing a death sentence by executive fiat on foreign companies that manage to compete too successfully in our markets.
Much like the Trump administration’s invocation of “national security” as a pretext for imposing tariffs on Canadian aluminum without congressional approval, the orders sanctioning TikTok and WeChat reek of capricious economic nationalism wrapped in a gossamer‐thin security rationale. They are comically hypocritical, dangerous to free expression, and a ruinous attack on the open global digital market the United States used to champion so vigorously.