Washington Keeps Choosing the Wrong Moment to Challenge China

The TikTok ban shows how decisions end up rushed—after being ignored.

This photograph taken on April 19, 2024 shows a man holding a smartphone displaying the logo of Chinese social media platform Tiktok.
This photograph taken on April 19, 2024 shows a man holding a smartphone displaying the logo of Chinese social media platform Tiktok.

MAY 6, 2024 : The same decision can be smart at the right time or disastrous at the wrong time. The recent passage of a bill that forces Chinese company ByteDance to divest from TikTok or face a ban on the video-sharing app in the United States is one such case.

One of the main arguments for the bill, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in late April, was based on the long-held worry that ByteDance could use TikTok—especially under the influence or direction of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese government—to spread propaganda and influence its American users and maybe even interfere in U.S. elections. At first, it might seem like a good idea to ban TikTok before the November elections to prevent any kind of interference.

But the new law doesn’t ban TikTok—it just gives the app’s Chinese parent company until January 2025, two months after the U.S. elections, to sell TikTok. TikTok will be around, under the control of a Chinese company, for another round of elections. Recent rumors seem to indicate that ByteDance would even prefer to shut down TikTok in the United States rather than sell it.

But the gravest threat is that Donald Trump, who is neck and neck with Biden in the polls, has come out publicly opposing a ban—even though he supported it in 2020. With TikTok’s operations safe before the elections but facing the end of the road under a second Biden administration, the law creates a logical incentive for ByteDance—or the Chinese government itself—to do whatever it can to help the candidate who opposes the ban get elected, in the hope that it might get a better deal than certain demise.

Ironically, this pernicious incentive comes before a presidential election that has been described by Biden as make or break for U.S. democracy and that Beijing has already tried to influence, according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

In the past few years, the U.S. government has taken firm measures against many Chinese companies, such as its sanctions against Huawei, the creation of the Chinese Military-Industrial Complex Companies List, and the restrictions on exports of advanced chips to China. But it avoided a final decision regarding the most important Chinese company operating in the United States; it took years of behind-the-scenes efforts to slowly and unsuccessfully deal with TikTok, only to fast-forward the entire process in a pivotal election year, with the ban scheduled for just after the elections, creating new risks in the meantime.

What might have been a good idea one or two years ago ended up being a dangerous gamble six months before a pivotal presidential election. Nobody knows if ByteDance or China will engage in any election interference, but the law creates a natural incentive for the company to favor one candidate over the other.

ByteDance, through TikTok, doesn’t even have to do much—it could simply promote messages to its U.S. users that inform them of the opposing positions of the two candidates, similarly to how it called on users to reach out to their elected representatives to express opposition to the bill. Or it could stop policing certain types of misinformation. Or, in the worst-case scenario, the fears of its opponents could come true if it decides to use TikTok’s famed recommendation algorithm to promote certain videos to select users. Considering that the presidential election will probably be decided by a few tens of thousands of votes in a handful of states, it could be tempting—and feasible—to try to influence the final result.

Once Trump’s new opposition to the bill became public, the logical thing to do was for Congress to abandon the bill and try again after the elections, without incentivizing ByteDance or even Beijing to support a candidate. Instead of preventing election interference, the law makes it more likely, at least for 2024.

Any evaluation of this law also cannot ignore the historical context. TikTok was launched internationally in 2017 and got a boost through ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly that same year, which already had a sizable U.S. user base. The Trump administration didn’t take any effective measures while TikTok attracted tens of millions of U.S. users over the next two years. This wasn’t inevitable: In the same period, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States signaled its opposition to a takeover of MoneyGram by a Chinese company and forced a different Chinese company to sell Grindr after it was already acquired. By the time the United States entered an election year in 2020 and TikTok had become a cultural force, it finally became a political subject, and the Trump administration tried to force a sale while threatening a ban.

Once the Biden administration came into office, the threat to TikTok dissipated. For three years, work went on behind the scenes but without any urgency and without bringing it into public view and public debate. Once another U.S. election was on the horizon, Washington finally took firm action, and TikTok again became a political controversy. Time and again, Washington picks the wrong moment to deal with a serious subject.

The desire to appear tough on China and on issues of national security and to leave a legacy seems to have overtaken the importance of a careful analysis of risks and benefits—or that of public debate, as it took less than two months for a proposal to become law, after almost seven years of slow-walking through behind-the-scenes efforts.

This isn’t an exception when it comes to how Washington has handled issues regarding China—preferring to avoid certain tough or costly decisions but rushing ahead without any caution on others. For example, more than five years after “decoupling” became a buzzword, China and the United States are still very much economically entangled, and Washington has avoided taking the measures necessary to reduce import dependencies on China for critical or important goods. In the case of rare-earth elements, it has been more than a decade since this critical dependency has come under the public spotlight but only recently have some shy steps been taken.

While there has been a lot of talk about economic competition with China, the United States has abandoned efforts to strengthen trade ties with allies and partners through free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which are apparently seen as a political third rail. Talk of the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is constant, but Washington has avoided the considerable investments necessary to boost deterrence while providing Taiwan with only token funding for its defenses. It is difficult to look at this entire seven-year process and find something that worked well.

If things turn out OK in TikTok’s case, it will be a consequence of luck, not strategy. And a strategy—one that is coherent, comprehensive, and long term—is what the United States needs in its rivalry with China, as ad hoc hurried efforts cannot make up for years of avoiding tough decisions.

Andrei Lungu is president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP).

Courtesy: Foreign Policy

  • Nepal News Agenacy Pvt. Ltd.

  • Putalisadak, Kathmandu Nepal

  • 01-4011122, 01-4011124

  • [email protected]

  • Department of Information and Broadcasting Regd.No. 2001।077–078

©2024 Nepal Page | Website by appharu.com

Our Team

Editorial Board