Cyber, Infrastructure, Telecoms, & National Security

In the dynamic and fluctuating world of the 21st century, what constitutes as a threat to national security?  On September 10, 2001 few Americans could have foreseen the new threat posed by transnational terrorism that would emerge a day later.  But inherent in that display of violence on 9/11 was the use of tools not normally classified as weapons (planes, box-cutters, etc.) in order to achieve a destructive end.  Since that fateful day, American leaders (political, economic, academic, etc.) have had to return to the proverbial drawing board and reanalyze what constitutes as a potential threat.  In the modern academic classroom a class in security studies is usually reserved for the emerging, non-traditional security threats of biohazards & contagions, climate, food scarcity, population, and cyber.

I bring up cyber last as it sits in the forefront of my mind of the emerging security threats as incredibly critical yet vastly undervalued.  For example, cyber attacks can be used by nation states (both great power and rogue nation alike) and terrorists and other non-state actors equally but for different ends.  In addition, cyber strikes are the ultimate in asymmetric warfare owing heavily in part to the absolute dependence on digital infrastructures by the United States.  Moreover, cyber strikes happen at the speed of light, bypass geographical restrictions while being relatively, and include deniability.   I could go on but suffice to say cyber is an important.  Yet, after attending a conference at Washington DC’s Army and Navy club on “American Grand Strategy and Seapower,” I was shocked to see senior members of the defense establishment and esteemed academics brush off cyber as a kids toy akin to video games or science fiction.  Nations such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea take this theater of war extremely seriously and it is dangerous to say the least for Americans to brush it off given the US’s status as one of the most cyber vulnerable nations in the world.  Thus, I came to the conclusion that this dimension of security studies must be made salient in American academic, defense, and policy circles.

In addition, to cyber comes the overlap of cyber, telecoms, and US infrastructure (which is also vulnerable to passive and active cyber security threats).  While searching for a topic for the CSPC research topic, I discovered a case of Huawei Telecommunications (a major Chinese telecoms company that has potential ties to the PLA and Communist government as well as the Chinese military-industry complex) being denied acquisition of a US telecom start-up, 3Leaf Systems, by the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States on national security grounds.  In a shocking move, Huawei stood its ground and refused to divest until President Obama was called into the equation.  Questions swirled in my mind: What type of National Security threat was this?  Had this happened before?  What ties did Huawei have to the People’s Liberation Army?  Was allowing a potential challenger to American hegemony’s private telecoms company to build US telecoms infrastructure a risk to our future?  Was this simply protectionism masked on security grounds?

I combined the year of research I have done on US-China relations (particularly research done in Beijing on Chinese Grand Strategy) with the knowledge I have picked up while working in the Department of Commerce’s Office of Technological and Electronic Commerce (focus on telecoms regulations and trade) to begin to frame my research for the CSPC.  My goal is to take a stab on relatively untilled academic ground and attempt to discern whether such actions by Huawei do constitute a threat and did the US respond appropriately (as well as are there ways for the US to improve this process).  My research thus far has been closer to a telecoms murder mystery of piecing together blog and newspaper articles with a few Congressional CRS reports.  Given the classification restrictions CFIUS employs, this research looks to be both challenging but exciting and I hope my conclusions can be useful to policy makers as they begin to define how the US will approach the threats of the 21st century.

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