In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched the Clean Network program — “the Trump administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.” In addition to the 5G Clean Path initiative announced in April on securing 5G networks for U.S. diplomatic facilities, the program includes five more “lines of effort” to counter China’s influence in U.S. telecommunication networks, mobile app stores, software apps, cloud computing, and undersea cables. The State Department claimed in August that over thirty countries are participating along with leading telecommunication companies around the world.
This unprecedented endeavor by the United States has produced diverse reactions, including Chinese criticism and counter-actions, lamentations that the administration is abandoning the global internet, praise for elevating verification and trust in network operations, suggestions for improving the program’s impact, and offering alternative approaches (as my CFR colleague Robert Knake has done). The range of responses reflects how the program cuts across geopolitical, ideological, technological, and commercial changes that are unsettling the international politics of the internet.
The Clean Network program expresses the administration’s belief that the strategic Chinese threat arises, in large part, from how China has developed and deployed cyber capabilities to facilitate political oppression, military assertiveness, economic nationalism, and diplomatic coercion. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach argued that China’s cyber capabilities, including its surveillance state and Great Firewall, made it possible to conceal the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, crack down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, engage in border clashes with India, and intensify repression in Xinjiang. The Clean Network program seeks to contain and roll-back the power and influence these capabilities generate for China. These objectives will make the program part of what my CFR colleague Adam Segal called the “coming tech Cold War with China.”