Tech

The US can't use Cold War tactics to engage with China, says former NSA head Michael Rogers

Key Points
  • Admiral Michael Rogers, former head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, is one of the early voices who described a national security threat from Chinese technology companies such as Huawei and ZTE.
  • Rogers discusses the reality of U.S. competitiveness with China, the threat it poses and how companies can do better to compete with China's resources on cybersecurity podcast Task Force 7 on Tuesday.
  • Rogers has been quietly joining the business world after leaving public service in 2018.
Navy Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of the US Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency and chief of Central Security Services.
Yuri Gripas | AFP | Getty Images

Admiral Michael Rogers, former head of the U.S. National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, was instrumental in some of the early intelligence reporting that put Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE on the radar of the intelligence community and Congress.

Rogers co-wrote a 50-page report in 2012 that outlined what intelligence agencies said was the long-term partnership between those companies and Beijing's Communist government.

The companies denied the claims then and have continued to deny them through 2019, but the information in the report precipitated 2019's mounting legal actions against the company, including controversial bans of many Chinese-made technology goods in the U.S.

Rogers discussed the multi-faceted problems facing the U.S. over China technology in an interview that aired Tuesday on the cybersecurity podcast Task Force 7 Radio.

He said China's main goal is to achieve 21st century technological dominance, and he explained some of the tactics that are hard to counter, such as IP theft, government subsidies of tech companies, and linking corporate interests to education and government research. He also offered some concrete suggestions on how to counter China's efforts while maintaining an American business philosophy.

What is China trying to achieve?

To deal with China effectively, U.S. businesspeople should understand the country's goal is to achieve dominance in the technologies that will be important in the 21st century.

After World War II, Rogers said, "It was the West who developed the core technologies that powered this economic growth. That gave gave the West this military advantage which then translated into significant diplomatic and political power," he said.

That power also came from developing global technological standards that allowed the U.S. to retain a global leadership position in technology, and then ushering in the creation of global technology corporations that could dominate in a variety of technology sectors.

China is looking to this model, but for the next generation of technological advances, Rogers said, and is therefore spending resources on quantum computing, 5G networking, biotechnology, nanotechnology and other key technologies.

Their thought process is: "We are going to develop those key technologies, we are going to get global bodies to adopt our technological standards, and then we're going to develop Chinese companies that can out-compete the Western companies of the past."

Entering China's 'gray zone'

Rogers warned that when business or political leaders differentiate between national security and economic impacts they may be missing the point: "In the 21st Century, the two are very much intertwined."

"Many of our potential adversaries are very focused on conflict in the 'gray zone,'" Rogers said, or "gaining advantage on the United States that does not trip an armed response from the United States."

This view is best illustrated by the current state of trade talks with China, which have vacillated based on conflicting views on China's alleged thefts of intellectual property from U.S. companies or the disputed status of China's tech giants as agents of the government.

It's the economic part of the equation that makes China so challenging, Rogers said.

"The last time we had a near-competitor who we viewed as a potential adversary, in terms of a nation-state, was the Soviet Union. They were largely a political, diplomatic and a military challenge. They were never an economic challenge. They were never going to surpass the United States economically. They didn't have the global economic impact or capabilities that we had. They never had those kind of things as options," Rogers said.

"Fast forward to now: China also represents a significant diplomatic, political and military challenge. But what makes it so different is it combines all of that with this significant economic capability. We have also not had a near-peer economically who is also such a competitor or potential adversary," in those other ways, Rogers said.

But he cautioned that it would not be productive for political or business forces to default to treating China as an enemy.

"That takes us down a road that I don't think is in our nation's best interest," he said.

He also said comparing our current trade, privacy or security standoffs with China to a "Cold War" is also unhelpful.

"I would say that's not a good analogy; rather, I would say that we are now competing against a nation-state that has a range of capabilities that we have not had to deal with before," he said.

In particular, he argued, attempting a "containment" strategy probably wouldn't work as it did with the Soviet Union, he said, referring to a series of U.S. foreign policy decisions starting in the 1940s that focused on minimizing the spread of Soviet ideology and power.

"That's a very flawed methodology. It has a low probability of success," he said.

Finding a balanced solution

Rogers said that China's sponsorship of its companies puts the country on an uneven playing field with its Western competitors, by centralizing funding and providing a cushion that doesn't exist for U.S. firms.

But he also cautioned that competing with China tit-for-tat likely wouldn't work for the U.S. Increased government intervention with technology companies simply wouldn't fly in the U.S., and providing government support for taking competitors' intellectual property or trade secrets would not be helpful, he said.

Still, the U.S. could vastly improve its public-private partnerships. "You saw the power of that partnership in the space race, the best of government and the best of the private sector."

In that case, he said, the Cold War analogy has some limited application: The U.S. was perceived as behind the Soviet Union but was able to take advantage of government and industry to create "some amazing economic advantages."

The U.S. can't "turn everything into a space-like effort from the 1960s," he said, but it can prioritize working together on the "core technologies of the digital age," and create new policies that give companies incentive to develop those technologies, in order to compete better with China. "I think on an even playing field, we will compete very well."

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