February 26, 2020 — Washington Examiner
Chinese officials are seeding the United States and allied nations indirectly with technology that could cause massive societal disruption in the event of a conflict, according to a senior Republican lawmaker.
“We have never faced that sort of vulnerability in the backbone of our country,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said this week.
China’s potential to carry out a crippling attack against U.S. satellites has commanded attention from military strategists and diplomats for years, but Rubio’s warning was spurred by analysis of much more mundane systems: office printers, which could pose an unexpected intelligence threat. Rubio, while acknowledging that risk, emphasized that Beijing wants “state-sponsored” companies to spread throughout Western societies.
“Imagine if, on the eve or on the verge of a conflict, we are aware of their ability to, or they demonstrate their ability to, deny a significant number of Americans access to their banking information, their telecommunications, their internet connectivity, the mass transit system of a major city, or a combination of all of these, [or] a utility network?” Rubio said Monday.
Those capabilities might embolden China to begin a conflict with a U.S. partner or ally, trusting that the threat of societal repercussions in the United States would prevent President Trump or another U.S. leader from intervening.
“Our knowledge that they can threaten the mass transit system of a city, the banking sector, the communications systems, provides them extraordinary leverage that would not even require them to shoot a single rocket or fire a single bullet,” Rubio said.
Rubio, who sits on both the Foreign Relations Committee overseeing the State Department and the intelligence panel with jurisdiction over U.S. spy agencies, has warned for years about threats posed by Chinese technology companies. Major telecommunications companies such as Huawei, a pioneer of next-generation wireless technology, have dominated much of the Western debate about such risks.
Rubio raised the possibility that China will find ways to kneecap U.S. decision-makers even if the federal government adopts tough security policies.
“If they are able, for example, to disrupt trade between the United States and a major trading partner, even if our systems are very secure, that disruption in trade, that disruption in economic activity, can sap a nation of the will to confront an adversary, if necessary,” he said. “And they’ll know that.”
Yet, as U.S. diplomats have struggled to convince even NATO allies to ban “high-risk” telecommunications companies, so Rubio worries that state and local governments are similarly hesitant to take the risk seriously.
“One of the things we’re still running into, sometimes at nonfederal levels, is the notion that this is being overblown, that this is being exaggerated,” he said.
The fact that Western companies sometimes purchase Chinese systems and then “white label” the devices as their own makes it hard to track the full extent of the problem.
“It’s hard to quantify how serious it is now,” he said. “It is already widespread enough for us to be concerned about it, and that’s just at the federal level.”