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u.s. response to chinese telecommunications, surveillance systems in central asia

U.S. Response to Chinese Telecommunications, Surveillance Systems in Central Asia

Author:Nicole Wolkov

Sep 25, 2020

A Caspian Policy Center (CPC) webinar on September 16, “Central Asia and the Digital Silk Road: Implications of Foreign Surveillance Systems in Central Asia,” discussed the CPC’s newly released policy brief, “China’s Growing Influence in Central Asia through Surveillance Systems.” Panelists drew attention to potential problems with the implementation and enforcement of laws against the political misuses of these new technologies, the threat of data exposure to the Chinese government, and the need for U.S. engagement in the region in the technological and security sectors.  

To counter increased technological involvement in the region the panelists suggested increased U.S. involvement to help Central Asian countries find alternatives to Chinese businesses whose technologies fall under China’s National Security Law and the “Military-Civil Fusion” strategy. This law states that all Chinese citizens, enterprises, public institutions, and other groups are obligated to maintain national security. The strategy aims to integrate China’s military and defense sectors with its civilian research and commercial sectors. Members of the U.S. National Security Council and NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCE) have already expressed concern about the risks of the use of Chinese 5G technology. The CCDCE wrote that, as of yet, there are “no equivalent alternatives to Huawei 5G technology,” and an April 2019 statement by former U.S. military leaders reported that the export of Chinese 5G would allow Beijing access to private data of millions of people, banking data, and much more. 

While China leads in developing the latest 5G technology, it is in the United States’ best interest to develop comparable 5G technology for its own use and for its allies. Countries looking to modernize their telecommunications networks could look to Washington’s Blue Dot Network (BDN) to find alternative partners to help upgrade current technologies. Through the BDN, governments could update critical telecommunication infrastructure while working with the private sector and civil society to ensure new technologies were transparent and complied with international laws, regulations, and standards. Currently, Central Asian countries have few options in the technology sector other than Chinese or Russian companies, however, the United States should provide U.S. options for the region. The United States should encourage its technology companies to work in Central Asia or partner with Central Asian companies to expand its own markets and to provide the region with alternative public and private partners. This would strengthen U.S.-Central Asian economic and security partnerships and bring a wider variety of technological infrastructure partners to the region.

Although working with the BDN on new technological infrastructure projects remains a future option, many countries, including those in Central Asia, have already made deals with Huawei for 5G connectivity and with other Chinese firms for facial recognition technologies. To mitigate possible data security threats, governments could establish an office within their ministries of defense specifically dedicated to investigating and reporting on the activities of Chinese telecommunication companies in their countries. In 2010, the United Kingdom created an office within its National Cyber Security Centre to scrutinize Huawei’s technologies. This office routinely publishes new findings on security issues. The establishment of such an office in countries looking to partner with Chinese companies for 5G telecommunication or security systems would help to mitigate and assess threats before they could occur. Continual investigation of possible security risks would not only help to determine security risks but also to inform policy making for the protection of citizens’ data. While legislation protecting citizens’ private data exists throughout the region, this legislation needs to be better implemented. Laws regarding citizens’ privacy are usually modeled after Western or European legislation; however, due to limited transparency and state capacity, existing laws aren’t always effective. Instead of creating new laws for the protection of private data, existing laws should first be improved and consistently implemented. 

With China’s growing influence in Central Asia through surveillance systems and 5G telecommunications networks under the Digital Silk Road, the United States should seek to protect its partners in Central Asia from firms subject to China’s National Security Law and “Military-Civil Fusion” strategy.  The United States could do this by providing alternative technological infrastructure partners, advocating for proper security measures and investigations, and supporting the implementation of privacy laws.  

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