Trump’s anti-China ‘posturing’ puts TikTok-Oracle deal in limbo, analysts say

  • China
  • Friday, 18 Sep 2020

HONG KONG, Sept 18 (SCMP): Political posturing by the Trump administration, according to analysts, adds uncertainty on whether a deal between TikTok and Oracle Corp, which would prevent the short video-sharing service from being banned in the US, will be approved by Washington before a September 20 deadline.

The deal may be in limbo after US President Donald Trump said at a press conference on Wednesday that he did not like Oracle’s bid for an alliance with ByteDance-owned TikTok. His comments came after the multi-agency panel reviewing the deal found that its structure did not resolve national security concerns over TikTok’s US operations, although Trump said he was unaware of the ruling.

“I don‘t think we can ignore the broader context in which this is happening, which is continuing to want to look tough on China,” said Justin Sherman, non-resident fellow for cyber statecraft initiative at Washington-based think tank the Atlantic Council. “Pretty much everything the president has done and does on foreign policy is politically driven. It’s about ‘political posturing, looking tough, securing good deals’.”

Unlike the outright sale of TikTok’s US business that Trump wanted under an executive order he signed last month, the deal would make Oracle a “trusted technology provider”, the US tech company confirmed on Monday. Oracle would take over management of TikTok’s user data in the US, according to a Reuters report.

Some Republican lawmakers have already urged the Trump administration to reject the proposed TikTok-Oracle deal. In a tweet on Tuesday, Senator Josh Hawley from the state of Missouri wrote that “an ongoing ‘partnership’ that allows anything than a full emancipation of the TikTok software from potential Chinese Communist Party control is completely unacceptable, and flatly inconsistent with the President’s Executive Order of August 6”.

While Trump has the authority to sign off on a deal, national security officials’ concerns could sway his decision. TikTok has repeatedly said it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content, and that the company would not do so if asked.

Still, the Atlantic Council’s Sherman indicated that Trump had already implied earlier this year that a ban on TikTok would be a way to punish China for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Beijing has reiterated its transparency about the coronavirus and even released a 37,000-word white paper in June to highlight its efforts in fighting the disease and enhancing international cooperation.

Last month, China’s Ministry of Commerce asserted its authority to review cross-border deals that would transfer certain local technologies overseas, including the systems that power TikTok’s recommendation engine.

The revised tech export controls as well as the Trump administration’s hardline stance against Chinese apps come at a time of worsening trade relations between Washington and Beijing. These have complicated efforts by ByteDance to divest TikTok’s US business ahead of Trump’s deadline.

The stakes are high for the Trump administration because of the potential impact TikTok’s mostly young user base could have on the US presidential election in November.

“We’ve known since at least 2012 that social media networks have the power to influence the voting behaviour of millions of people. TikTok is no different,” said Fergus Ryan, an analyst at independent think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

In June, that influence was reportedly manifested during a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump had boasted of nearly 1 million sign-ups to the event, but only 6,200 people showed up. Many of the no-shows were reportedly teenagers on social-media apps TikTok, Instagram and Twitter

who signed up for the rally – using fake names or burner email accounts – with no intention of attending.

On the TikTok-Oracle deal, Sherman of Atlantic Council indicated that its current structure does not fully address Washington’s security concerns about the popular app. “It‘s kind of vague [how Oracle will manage TikTok data in the US],” he said.

Still, he said an outright ban of the app “is going to do nothing to address the risk of the Chinese government getting the data”. He added: “As long as there are no strong federal privacy rules in the US, the Chinese government – or any other government for that matter – can go to any number of companies that sell data on Americans, that sell data that‘s far more intimate than what TikTok has and just buy it from there.”

As such, the US government’s issue with TikTok will only be one of many other conflicts it must deal with related to Chinese apps.

“Social media will be an increasing source of interstate tension because it overlaps commercial and security lines,” said David Denoon, a professor of politics and economics at New York University. “Since Beijing will not allow Western social media to operate openly in China, the current debate over TikTok is probably just the first of many contests over jurisdiction and control. Sadly, this may mean a long-term division of the internet between Chinese and Western providers.” - South China Morning Post

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