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Balancing on the Knife's Edge: Population Decline, Solomon Islands, and TikTok
1. Population Decline
VERMILION: Last week, Vermilion reported on China’s first population drop in six decades and questioned what method the CCP will deploy to fix this long-term problem. The policy shift to offer single parents maternity benefits will impact China’s future workforce and culture, giving families more options. The policy could also lead employers to further shun the hiring of women. Ultimately, these demographic drivers could possibly pressure the CCP to act sooner than later on “reunifying” Taiwan and/or settling undecided land borders.
China province to offer benefits to single parents as birth rate drops - Washington Post
Amid fears of a demographic crisis in China after the country’s birthrate reached its lowest level on record last year, officials in one of its most populous provinces have launched a policy that allows unmarried people to register the births of an unlimited number of children. The move by the health commission in Sichuan province, which is home to nearly 84 million people, makes unmarried parents eligible for benefits that were previously reserved for married couples. It comes after the country’s population shrank last year for the first time in six decades, as the birthrate declined to 6.77 per 1,000 people, down from 7.52 in the previous year.
BEIJING/HONG KONG, Jan 17 (Reuters) - China's population fell last year for the first time in six decades, a historic turn that is expected to mark the start of a long period of decline in its citizen numbers with profound implications for its economy and the world.
The country's National Bureau of Statistics reported a drop of roughly 850,000 people for a population of 1.41175 billion in 2022, marking the first decline since 1961, the last year of China's Great Famine.
That possibly makes India the world's most populous nation. U.N. experts predicted last year India would have a population of 1.412 billion in 2022 though they did not expect the South Asian nation to overtake China until this year.
2. U.S. general warns troops that war with China is possible in two years
VERMILION: General Mike Minihan leads the Air Mobility Command (AMC). While this memo assesses a near-term Chinese invasion, it details the need for heightened training and readiness of operational US military forces. As such, readers should understand that this memo is written by a General whose duty is to ensure the AMC is ready for anything. This recognizes the strategic threat that China poses and warns that military forces should quicken the pace of their response. A capable and ready military generates deterrence.
A four-star Air Force general sent a memo on Friday to the officers he commands that predicts the U.S. will be at war with China in two years and tells them to get ready to prep by firing "a clip" at a target, and "aim for the head."
In the memo sent Friday and obtained by NBC News, Gen. Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, said, “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me will fight in 2025.”
He lays out his goals for preparing, including building “a fortified, ready, integrated, and agile Joint Force Maneuver Team ready to fight and win inside the first island chain.” The signed memo is addressed to all air wing commanders in Air Mobility Command and other Air Force operational commanders, and orders them to report all major efforts to prepare for the China fight to Minihan by Feb. 28.
After publication of this article, a defense department official said, “These comments are not representative of the department’s view on China.” Defense Department press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement, “The National Defense Strategy makes clear that China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense and our focus remains on working alongside allies and partners to preserve a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific.”
When asked earlier this month whether a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was imminent, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said, “What we’re seeing recently, is some very provocative behavior on the part of China’s forces and their attempt to re-establish a new normal.”
“But whether or not that means that an invasion is imminent,” said Austin, “I seriously doubt that."
3. U.S. opens embassy in Solomon Islands
VERMILION: Both Beijing and Washington are racing to build partnerships with pacific nations by offering economic and security assistance to expand force projection and pull potential allies away from each other. Pacific Islands Nations (PICs), of which there are many, are critical stepping stones across the Pacific from California to Asia. Transit through these nations is required if the US needs to logistically supply a fight in Taiwan.
The United States has opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands after a 30-year absence as it seeks to boost diplomatic relations in the Pacific as a counter to China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced plans to open a diplomatic mission in the Pacific island nation during a visit to the region last year. The last U.S. embassy in the Solomons closed in 1993 amid post-Cold War budget cuts and the United States was represented there by an ambassador based in Papua New Guinea.
In a statement on Wednesday, Blinken said the State Department informed the Solomon Islands' government that the opening of the new embassy in the capital Honiara became official as of Jan. 27. "The opening of the embassy builds on our efforts not only to place more diplomatic personnel throughout the region, but also to engage further with our Pacific neighbors, connect United States programs and resources with needs on the ground, and build people-to-people ties," he said.
The U.S. move comes amid concerns among Washington and its allies about Beijing's military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region after it struck a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year. In September, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Pacific island leaders in a Washington summit at which he pledged to help stave off China's "economic coercion" and promised to work harder with allies and partners to address islanders' needs.
A joint declaration between Washington and 14 Pacific island states resolved to strengthen their partnership and said they shared a vision for a region where "democracy will be able to flourish." Those endorsing the document included the Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, whose government had earlier indicated it would not sign, heightening concerns about his ties to China.
On Monday, the remote atoll nation of Kiribati said it would rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum, ending a split that had threatened unity at a time of increased superpower tensions in the strategically located region. Kiribati switched diplomatic recognition from self-ruled but Chinese-claimed Taiwan to Beijing in 2019, as did the Solomons. The reopening of the embassy in the Solomons comes as Washington has been negotiating the renewal of cooperation agreements with three key Pacific island nations, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.
Under Compacts of Free Association (COFA) first agreed in the 1980s, Washington retains responsibility for the islands' defense and exclusive access to huge swaths of the Pacific.
Washington said it signed memorandums of understanding last month with the Marshall Islands and Palau and had reached consensus with them on terms of U.S. future economic assistance, but has not provided details.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines this week is expected to bring an announcement of expanded US access to military bases in the country, a senior Philippines official said on Wednesday. Washington is eager to extend its security options in the Philippines as part of efforts to deter any move by China against self-ruled Taiwan, while Manila wants to bolster defence of its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
The Philippines is Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia. US officials have said Washington hopes for an access agreement during Austin’s visit and that Washington has proposed additional sites under an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) dating back to 2014. “There’s a push for another four or five of these EDCA sites,” a senior Philippines official said. “We are going to have definitely an announcement of some sort. I just don’t know how many would be the final outcome of that.” The official declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Manila and Washington have a mutual defence treaty and have been discussing US access to four additional bases on the northern land mass of Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, as well as another on the island of Palawan, facing the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The EDCA allows US access to Philippine bases for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and building of facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, but not a permanent presence. The US military already has access to five such sites. The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent basing of foreign troops and their involvement in local combat.
Austin would hold talks with his Philippine defence counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jnr, and National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano, Romualdez said. Austin would separately call on President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, who took office in June and has since taken steps to boost relations with Washington.
Romualdez said the Philippines needed to cooperate with Washington militarily to deter any escalation of tensions between China and Taiwan, not only because of the treaty alliance but to help prevent a major conflict. “We’re in a Catch-22 situation. If China makes a move on Taiwan militarily, we’ll be affected – and all Asean region, but mostly us, Japan and South Korea,” Romualdez told reporters, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-nation regional bloc that includes the Philippines.
Marine Littoral Regiments’ return to Luzon and future presence in Okinawa illustrate the US military’s increasing focus on being present and able to operate in and around the islands off China’s coast, which US officials see as vital to thwarting any Chinese move against Taiwan and in the wider Pacific.
4. More TikTok Troubles
VERMILION: Our previous post on TikTok comprehensively deals with the negative aspects of the app and why it is likely to be banned in 2023. Now, ByteDance/TikTok is in panic mode as there continues to be no light at the end of the tunnel. TikTok has been caught repeatedly lying about Beijing accessing user data, with the latest violation occurring roughly three months ago when TikTok was used to track the location of specific American citizens believed to be journalists threatening to ByteDance’s interests.
This happened under TikTok CEO Shou’s watch and now he is the same CEO attempting to communicate that TikTok will not allow Beijing to access data. It stretches credulity, and Shou is now scheduled to testify in front of Congress next month which will almost certainly go poorly, based on past interactions. The lies and distortions just keep mounting up, including ByteDance’s tactic of touting Shou’s “Singaporean” roots. This is partially true, but Shou is almost certainly ethnically Chinese with family ties to the mainland. He previously served as CFO of Xiaomi, a mainland China tech major that almost certainly has a close relationship with the Chinese military, despite winning a case in US court to delist itself from the US entity list.
Regardless, we will keep our readers up to date on TikTok’s state of play.
TikTok’s New Defense in Washington: Going on the Offense - New York Times
Last week, TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, met with several influential think tanks and public interest groups in Washington, sharing details on how his company plans to prevent data on American users from ever leaving the United States. And the company’s lobbyists swarmed the offices of lawmakers who have introduced bills to ban the app, telling them that TikTok can be trusted to protect the information.
TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video app, has been in the cross-hairs of American regulators for years now, with both the Trump and Biden administrations weighing how to ensure that information about Americans who use the service doesn’t land in the hands of Beijing officials.
Through it all, the company has maintained a low profile in Washington, keeping its confidential interactions with government officials under wraps and eschewing more typical lobbying tactics.
But as talks with the Biden administration drag on, pressure on the company has arrived in waves from elsewhere. Congress, state lawmakers, college campuses and cities have adopted or considered rules to outlaw the app.
Now, TikTok is upending its strategy for how to deal with U.S. officials. The new game plan: Step out of the shadows.
“We have shifted our approach,” said Erich Andersen, general counsel of ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok. He said that the company had been “heads down” in private conversations with a committee led by the Biden administration to review foreign investments in businesses in the United States, but that then the government put the negotiations “on pause.”
“What we learned, unfortunately the hard way, this fall was it was necessary for us to accelerate our own explanation of what we were prepared to do and the level of commitments on the national security process,” Mr. Andersen said.
TikTok is at the center of a geopolitical and economic battle between the United States and China over tech leadership and national security. The outcome of TikTok’s negotiations with the U.S. government could have broad implications for technology and internet companies, shaping how freely digital data flows between countries.
For two years, TikTok has been in confidential talks with the administration’s review panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, to address questions about ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government and whether that link could put the sensitive data of 100 million U.S. users into the hands of Beijing officials. The company assumed that those talks would reach a resolution soon after it submitted a 90-page proposal to the administration in August.
Under the proposal, called Project Texas, TikTok would remain owned by ByteDance. But it would take a number of steps that it said would prevent the Chinese government from having access to data on U.S. users and offer the U.S. government oversight of the platform. Some of those steps have been put in place since October.
TikTok has proposed putting all U.S. user data into domestic servers owned and operated by Oracle, the American software giant.
The company has proposed putting all U.S. user data into domestic servers owned and operated by Oracle, the American software giant. The data would not be allowed to be transferred outside the United States, nor would it be accessible to ByteDance or TikTok employees outside the country.
The program proposes having CFIUS conduct regular audits of the new data system and creating a new unit, TikTok U.S. Data Security, with 2,500 engineers, security experts, and trust and safety officials, all based in the United States, who have access to TikTok’s U.S. user data for business functions. The unit would report to a three-member board assigned by CFIUS. In addition, TikTok’s source code, which offers insight into why certain videos are shown in users’ feeds, would be reviewed by Oracle and a third-party inspector.
Some details of the proposal were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.
“We knew that, in order to earn trust, we would have to build a system that provided an unprecedented level of security and transparency — that’s what we’ve done and will continue to do,” Mr. Chew said in an interview.
The proposal, though, has yielded little response from the panel, Mr. Andersen said. TikTok said it had asked about the status of the panel’s review in numerous emails and received little response. The company’s officials learn about the administration’s thinking on the proposal only through news coverage, they said.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, the lead agency of CFIUS, said the panel was “committed to taking all necessary actions within its authority to safeguard U.S. national security.” She declined to comment about TikTok’s depiction of the negotiations, saying the panel doesn’t comment on cases it may or may not be reviewing.
TikTok’s more aggressive lobbying stance will not necessarily yield different results. The company has few allies in Washington. The most powerful tech lobbying groups, like the Chamber of Progress and TechNet, prefer to represent American companies and have policies against representing Chinese companies. In fact, many big tech companies, like Meta, have argued that TikTok poses a security threat.
And lawmakers in both parties have expressed concern. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has said that the company has misrepresented how it protects U.S. data from Chinese-based employees, and that he is considering a bill to outlaw the app in the United States.
On Tuesday, Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, introduced a bill to ban the app for all American users after successfully passing a bill in December that banned the app on all devices issued by the federal government.
“A halfway solution is no solution at all,” said Mr. Hawley, who is among a growing number of lawmakers who don’t see a compromise on data storage and access as a solution to TikTok’s security risks.
Senator Josh Hawley has introduced a bill to ban TikTok for all American users.
Yet the growing pressure on the company has left it few options other than changing its approach, many outside experts say.
“The issue has become public in a way that they can’t ignore,” said Graham Webster, the editor in chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center. “And this may be their way of pushing to actually get the CFIUS agreement completed, which is really their best chance of a sustainable business path in the United States.”
In a 24-hour visit to Washington last week, Mr. Chew held four back-to-back 90-minute meetings with think tanks like New America, academics and public interest groups such as Public Knowledge. In the company’s temporary WeWork suites near Capitol Hill, Mr. Chew and Mr. Andersen outlined the promises in Project Texas in a presentation with graphics on how the data is stored in Oracle’s cloud and TikTok’s appointment of a content moderation board and auditors.
They told the groups that the company rebuked allegations that China interferes in the business, but that they had built the system to prove their commitment to security, according to people at the meetings.
“It seemed like a serious effort,” said Matt Perault, the director of the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina, who attended a briefing and whose center receives funding from TikTok.
He added that the company appeared to be trying to shift the discussion about it from hypothetical risks to operational and technical solutions. TikTok would spend $1.5 billion to set up its proposed plan and then as much as $1 billion a year. U.S. users may have a slightly worse experience with the app outside the country, a cost of operating from Oracle’s servers, the company executives said.
Mr. Perault said even with those efforts, “they can’t make something zero risk.”
“There is no way they can guarantee data won’t go to an adversary in some way,” he said.
As part of its more aggressive public relations offensive, TikTok has invited journalists to Los Angeles this month for a first-time tour of what it calls its “transparency and accountability center,” a physical space where it shows how humans and technology moderate videos on the platform.
In recent days, TikTok and ByteDance have posted half a dozen communications and policy job openings in Washington. The new jobs would add to the 40 lobbyists whom the companies now have on contract or as employees. Those lobbyists include four former members of Congress, such as Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate majority leader, and John Breaux, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana. The companies have also recently posted job openings for roles doing strategic communications and policy for engagement with state and federal officials.
ByteDance spent $4.2 million in federal lobbying in the first three quarters of 2022 and is expected to far outpace that figure this year.
A spokeswoman for TikTok said the company’s lobbyists had a hard time scheduling meetings with lawmakers who were critical of the company in TV appearances.
Representatives Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, who are co-sponsors of the bill in Congress to ban TikTok, said they planned to meet with the company soon.
But Mr. Krishnamoorthi made it clear that he would not be easily persuaded to change his position. He said in an interview that TikTok was “taking a more aggressive stance in Washington,” but that the company had yet to meaningfully address some of his concerns, such as how it would respond to a Chinese media law that allowed the government to secretly demand data from Chinese companies and citizens.
Mr. Gallagher said he wanted more information from CFIUS about ByteDance’s proposed ownership structure. “I come in somewhat skeptical — I prefer a ban or a forced sale, but I’m more than willing to do my due diligence in examining the technical aspects of such an arrangement,” he said. And even then, he said, “where we have a lot of unanswered questions” is around how its recommendation system works.
TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew will appear before the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee in March, as lawmakers scrutinize the Chinese-owned video-sharing app.
Chew will testify before the committee on March 23, which will be his first appearance before a congressional committee, said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican chair of the panel, in a statement on Monday.
The news comes as the House Foreign Affairs Committee plans to hold a vote next month on a bill aimed at blocking the use of TikTok in the United States over national security concerns.
"ByteDance-owned TikTok has knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data," McMorris Rodgers said, adding that Americans deserve to know how these actions impact their privacy and data security. TikTok confirmed on Monday Chew will testify.