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Biden correctly employs IEEPA in the best move of his presidency
President Biden has properly invoked IEEPA. China investment controls isn't about protectionism, it's about a very great threat.
To quote the order:
Advancements in sensitive technologies and products in these sectors will accelerate the development of advanced computational capabilities that will enable new applications that pose significant national security risks, such as the development of more sophisticated weapons systems, breaking of cryptographic codes, and other applications that could provide these countries with military advantages.
Now, foreign policy poker isn’t Biden’s best suit. He bungled the Afghanistan withdrawal. He offended the Saudis into stiff-arming our diplomatic efforts, continuing to weaponize oil production (playing into Russia’s game), and accelerating their effort to “sportswash” oppression away. He has attempted—weakly—to resurrect the moribund Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the “Iran nuclear deal”). He has sent mixed signals about oil and tariffs, confusing our allies and confounding corporate planners. He has enflamed our relations with China with his ill-considered blurts about Taiwan.
Biden has gotten some things right. His support of Ukraine, and early warning of Vladimir Putin’s intentions, may have saved that nation from being subsumed into a new “Russian empire.” I don’t totally agree with Biden’s approach to the war in Ukraine, but there’s room to disagree while staying on the same side. (There’s no place in the room for Russian apologists or Zelenskyy conspiracy kooks.)
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The executive order prohibiting investment transactions that relate to certain technologies and countries—China—is, in my opinion, the best move Biden has made since he took office. It’s also a wonderful example of the proper use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).
First, let’s examine the threat. It’s real. The confluence of AI, quantum computing, satellite and space technology, and communications is a military domain of warfare. It should be obvious that being able to read the enemy’s secure communications, and secure your own from being read is a key to military advantage. During World War II, two key advances greatly helped the allies defeat the axis powers: “Ultra” operations at Bletchley Park allowed us to read German Enigma encoded messages, and Project Hypo broke the Japanese JN25 code in the Pacific.
China has created a “great firewall” to cordon off its internet access, only allowing applications and communications deemed “safe” for its subjects. Chinese dissidents can get past these blocks by using encrypted services that piggyback on innocuous communications streams. Meanwhile, the PRC’s government weaponizes applications like WeChat to spy on its own (and foreign) residents. This, by the way, is the reason I stay away from Tiktok, even though it remains the most popular app download, globally. It’s also the reason Congress passed—and Biden signed—the No Tiktok on Government Devices Act.
But let’s take those spyware accusations further. What if China was able to harness the power of quantum computing to break every known cipher system? There exists a legitimate and growing field called post-quantum cryptography, or “PQC” to address this very real threat. Quantum computing has the potential to take what have been “hard problem” math, like large prime numbers, and reduce it to solvable problems. This would make what have been “unbreakable” cipher systems obsolete.
(Note on cryptography: there is really no unbreakable system, only systems where the economic feasibility or effort required to break them are not achievable. Remember the Russians knew that the U.S. was messing around in the North Pacific with the Hughes Glomar Explorer, and suspected we were attempting to raise the sunk K-129 submarine resting at the bottom of nearly 17,000 feet of ocean. They concluded that such a thing was an engineering impossibility, and dismissed it. Of course, we did raise a good portion of the sub. The point is: Don’t underestimate the enemy’s ability in engineering, or cryptography.)
China isn’t just thinking about using quantum computing to create unbreakable, unhackable cipher systems. They are doing it. Or rather, they have tested a quantum-enabled satellite communications system that uses “quantum entanglement” to create basically unbreakable keys that don’t rely on pseudo-random algorithms or other mathematical constructs.
Their goal is to build a quantum-key distribution “QKD” network that relies on a “constellation of quantum-encryption-compatible satellites across a range of orbits, to ensure more secure long-distance communications.” The flip side of this technology is that it can use untrusted satellites—like ours. From Scientific American:
“We don’t need to trust the satellite,” [physicist Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology of China] says. “So the satellite can be made by anyone—even by your enemy.” Each secret key is one of two strings of entangled photon pairs. The laws of quantum physics dictate that any attempt to spy on such a transmission will unavoidably leave an errorlike footprint that can be easily detected by recipients at either station.
A combination of AI technology coupled with quantum technology, deployed in orbit, is a powerful way to break every cipher system currently protecting our secrets—and the privacy of everyone in the world. Honestly, I wouldn’t trust our government with this kind of tech, but I would trust them more than the Chinese communists.
President Biden’s executive order recognizes the real threat and the potential of these technologies, and that they are indeed a military and national security interest of the United States.
Kudos to Biden for demonstrating the correct way to use the IEEPA. You don’t have to go back in history very far to see the incorrect way. Former President Trump abused IEEPA in terrible ways. The Brennan Center breaks them down pretty well.
During a trade war with China, he threatened to order all U.S. companies to leave China, and when questioned on his power to do so tweeted “try looking at the Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977. Case closed!" Last year, he threatened to use the law to impose escalating tariffs on goods coming from Mexico to force it to control the number of migrants traversing that country to reach the U.S. border. And this year, he warned of sanctions against Iraq if it expelled U.S. troops following the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
The IEEPA is a powerful tool to recognize and address real threats. It’s a bad hammer in the thumbless hands of a toddler president who wants to force others to give him his way. Biden has demonstrated he knows the correct use of this tool. I don’t have to say anything else about the last guy in office.
If I remember anything about the Biden presidency, this might be the highlight. We will be dealing with the threats of cyber warfare, space warfare, and social media spying, for a long time. We are best served by not giving away the keys to our own national security, even if it is worth billions.