Papua New Guinea
In what seems to be a common occurrence, Chinese video-sharing app TikTok is once again in the headlines.
After months of speculation about national security risks and users’ data being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party, US President Donald Trump has announced plans to ban TikTok in the United States any day now.
In response, a deal is being negotiated between TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and US software giant Microsoft. If successful, Microsoft will take over the app’s operations in the US and potentially also in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
A US ban would not be unprecedented. India barred TikTok last month, alongside dozens of other Chinese-owned apps and websites.
According to reports, ByteDance has agreed to sell some of its TikTok operations to Microsoft. The deal, which is unlikely to progress before mid-September, would appease US regulators and could be seen as a way forward for TikTok in Australia.
Microsoft has indicated any takeover would include a complete security review and an offer of:
… continuing dialogue with the United States government, including with the president.
Moving ownership to a US company could help address concerns surrounding the perceived influence of the Chinese government over TikTok. But there will need to be strong oversight to ensure existing user data is transferred entirely to Microsoft’s control.
While Microsoft has pledged to ensure TikTok data are deleted “from servers outside the country after it is transferred” – it would be difficult to prove copies had not been made before control was handed over.
What’s more, a Microsoft-owned TikTok may not appeal to everyone. Some may think Microsoft is too closely tied to the US government, or may consider it a monopoly holder in the personal computing market.
Also, it would be naive to think foreign governments will not be able to covertly access US-stored user data, if they are so inclined.
Should the deal go ahead, it may open an opportunity for the Australian and New Zealand governments to align with a US-supported initiative.
Australia is still deciding how to proceed, with the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media due to hear from TikTok representatives on August 21. The committee has been tasked to look at the influence of social media on elections and the use of such platforms to distribute misinformation.
TikTok won’t be alone though – Facebook and Twitter are both due to attend. It is, however, unlikely the Microsoft acquisition will have much influence on the proceedings as the deal is still in the early days of discussion.
Microsoft’s acquisition may introduce fresh concerns about the US government’s influence over TikTok. Although, this is perhaps more politically palatable than potential Chinese government influence over the app – given the Chinese Communist Party’s unsavoury record of privacy abuses.
Perhaps the only winner from the deal would be ByteDance itself. A product that is increasingly disliked by foreign governments will only become harder to sell with time. It would make sense for ByteDance to cash out its asset sooner rather than later.
The deal would also likely earn it a significant payout, given TikTok’s millions of users.
Despite ongoing allegations, there is no solid evidence of a threat to either national security or personal data from using TikTok. Many of the concerns hinge on data sovereignty – specifically, where data are stored and who can use and access them.
TikTok has responded to allegations by stating its user data are not stored in China and are not subject to Chinese government influence or access.
That said, while TikTok user data may well be stored outside China, it is unclear whether the Chinese government has already secured access, or will seek to do so later through legal channels.
There are, however, other potential issues that may be driving the US’s concerns.
For instance, in 2018 an unexpected consequence of sharing fitness tracker data through the Strava website inadvertently revealed the locations of secret US military bases.
Thus, services such as TikTok which are meant to be relatively benign (if used ethically) can, under certain circumstances, present unexpected threats to national security. This may explain why Australia’s defence forces have banned the app.
Threats from the US against TikTok are not new.
However, in regards to Trump’s most recent threat, one contributing factor may be the personal feelings of the president himself.
A number of TikTok users reserved tickets to the Trump rally and didn’t show up, as a protest against the president. The rally saw only a few thousand supporters attend, out of hundreds of thousands of allocated tickets.
China and Hong Kong
A new cold war with China is coming and it will be just as dangerous, expensive and pointless as the last one.
The difference will be how much more New Zealand is involved.
Steering an independent course in these dangerous seas will be very difficult: our Five Eyes security partners will want us to jump one way, our largest economic partner the other.
This fine line was visible this week when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke at the China Business Summit in Auckland. New Zealand has “different perspectives on some issues”, said Ardern – to which China’s New Zealand ambassador Wu Xi replied:
Pursuing a zero-sum game and portraying others as adversaries or enemies will lead to nowhere and will only harm its own interests.
The latest flashpoint is China’s decision to pass a new security law for Hong Kong. The New Zealand government has ordered a review of all policy settings, despite Foreign Minister Winston Peters having already criticised the law and being told by Beijing to stop interfering in Hong Kong’s and China’s internal affairs.
But New Zealand is right to be concerned about the new law. Designed to combat political dissidence, it covers serious but ill-defined crimes and imposes heavy penalties through opaque justice systems.
It also breaches the spirit of the 1997 Basic Law, which established the principles for the British handover to China.
Some might argue it’s a price worth paying if it brings stability and prosperity back to Hong Kong. After all, some of the key 1997 promises were never implemented, and China has quite properly taken the initiative.
Moreover, the Basic Law was going to lapse in 2047. What is happening now was going to happen anyway, just sooner than planned.
The new law may be repugnant to those who believe civil liberties enjoyed in Western democracies should be universal. But it is not unique within communist China, where social and economic progress has been achieved at a price of minimal dissent.
Self-interest might have had other powers turning a blind eye in the past. But the new geopolitics have seen the security law become a line in the sand.
America is ready to impose sanctions on China over Hong Kong and Uyghur human rights. Australia is increasing its military spending by 40% over the next ten years, as part of a more assertive approach to China with less reliance on the US.
Following India, US President Donald Trump is pressing for a ban on the popular Chinese social media app TikTok due to security concerns.
Amid all this, New Zealand is increasingly out of step. Our criticism of the new security law was clear, but it wasn’t coordinated with the Five Eyes partners, nor did it employ the kind of language that has seen Hong Kong described as a “bastion of freedom”.
New Zealand has also announced it won’t follow Britain’s ban on Huawei and has avoided discussions about military build-ups or sanctions.
This is wise. There is no military solution to this problem and our economic relationship with China only complicates matters.
China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner in goods and second-largest overall including trade in services. Since the ground-breaking 2008 Free Trade Agreement, two-way trade has increased to NZ$30.6 billion per year, more than half of that in New Zealand’s favour.
In an ideal world, these problems would be resolved calmly through a rule-based order of law or arbitration.
Unfortunately, the chances of China consenting to a third party resolving any dispute over what it sees as its sovereign rights are near zero. When such a resolution was attempted over its island building project in the South China Sea, China put the unfavourable ruling in the bin.
The question, therefore, is how New Zealand positions itself in the new cold war if all sides are angry and there is no clear middle ground. The announced policy review offers the best way forward.
The review needs to consider the tone and independence of our foreign policy voice. It should ensure our trade relations comply with the human rights standards we profess to value. And it should require free trade never comes at the expense of free speech.
Of course, we will have to measure the costs and benefits of elevating human rights goals in our foreign policy. If countries we disagree with can’t change, we need to articulate what our bottom line is.
Most critically of all, we must now learn to navigate for ourselves in what will be the most difficult foreign policy challenge the next government will face.
Because whether we like it or not, we are sailing into a new cold war.