By Our Reporter
A new law meant to keep Chinese telecoms out of American networks threatens to make life impossible for diplomats, aid workers, and the military across much of Africa and Asia, where Chinese telecoms are the only game in town, according international relations experts.
Among the groups of people likely to be affected are HIV/AIDS patients in Uganda who are set to lose over USD300m in grants and aide from the United States.
The law, which went into effect in August, is intended to purge Chinese telecommunications technology from the communications systems of U.S. agencies and contractors, a task that is particularly challenging in countries that rely almost entirely on Chinese tech. Supporters hope the legislation will gradually wean American agencies and businesses off Chinese technology and open the market for U.S. and allied countries to compete with China.
But critics say it may have the opposite effect, undermining foreign assistance programs and hamstringing U.S. agencies and companies vying with China and other rivals for influence—providing a boost for China as it seeks to promote its major infrastructure and trade mission, known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
“The administration’s interpretation of the law unequivocally throws a wrench into the works. Without real changes or numerous waivers it is going to have a major impact, with ripple effects across U.S. foreign assistance,” said Noam Unger, the vice president for development policy, advocacy, and learning at InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based international relief organizations.
“If you are trying to compete with China, hobbling yourself in terms of your foreign assistance is not advisable,” he added.
The dispute over Chinese telecom comes as the Trump Administration is pursuing an increasingly confrontational approach to Beijing, which the White House has blamed for unleashing the coronavirus on the world. The White House is preparing a large arms sale worth billions of dollars to Taiwan, the New York Times reported, and the Commerce Department announced the administration would ban all U.S. transactions with the Chinese social media apps, WeChat and TikTok.
The law grants the heads of U.S. agencies the authority to issue a one-time, temporary waiver, and it empowers the director of national intelligence to issue renewable waivers on national security grounds. The current head of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, recently granted waivers to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department, conceding in both cases that U.S. national security would be best served by a reprieve. But those waivers are set to expire at the end of the month, and Ratcliffe is weighing whether to extend them.
When USAID appealed for a waiver this summer, it warned that the law would “cripple our ability to operate overseas” in the more than 100 nations where it operates. It claimed that nearly $1 billion in funding for U.S. relief, health, and development programs was at risk, including $15.1 million in assistance to victims of the massive Lebanon port explosion, $13 million to promote democracy and governance in Indonesia, and a $300 million program to treat people with HIV/AIDs in Uganda.
“While well intentioned, the law and the rule will put programs at risk of interruption, significant delay, or cessation,” according to a USAID white paper obtained by Foreign Policy. The requirements, the agency contended, could “hinder USAID’s ability to respond to humanitarian assistance and global emergencies.”
It is unclear whether the waivers have secured funding for those programs USAID claimed were under threat.
In response to questions about the law, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, the acting spokesperson for USAID, reiterated that “While we support the intent of the law to counter potentially non-secure telecommunications and video-surveillance services or equipment, and are fully committed to abiding by the statute and subsequent rules, we have encountered challenges in implementation and identified potential unintended consequences that could affect our foreign-assistance programs and overseas operations.”
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