The US, China and TikTok

For months, the debate over the future of TikTok has raged – with the social media platform acting as a key front in the stand-off between President Trump and the Chinese government.

On the 18th September, the Department of Commerce announced prohibitions on purchases of WeChat and TikTok to “safeguard the national security of the United States.” According to the statement released by the Department of Commerce,  “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the U.S. Today’s announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality.”

Michael Schuman, writing in the Atlantic, notes that TikTok has become a symbol “of the new challenge a rising, tech-enabled China presents not simply to a free society, but to American dominance in the tech sector.” As such, it has become a key foreign policy priority for President Trump – and a barometer for would-be-presidents on whether they have the nous to stand up to China in emerging areas.

Trump’s threats to ban TikTok on grounds of national security – unless an American company takes control of its US operations – have led to a deal that would give major US corporations (Oracle and Walmart) minority stakes in a new US company, TikTok Global, which would be US based and control the US operations of the platform. 

It is clear that technology and social media is increasingly becoming a front in foreign policy and diplomatic disputes – what does this mean for the evolution of tech and the internet? Is there a compromise to be made?

The fact that President Trump has given his blessing to a deal on the future of TikTok in the United States shows that perhaps there is a point of compromise between the US and China – and also shows that the United States maintains huge clout in situations such as these. But it’s not unfair to suggest that this could only be the beginning; and the dispute over TikTok, which has 80 million users in the United States, will have brought the day-to-day ramifications of foreign policy decisions into sharp focus for many citizens of the United States. 

In a fascinating piece for the New Statesman, Laurie Clarke notes that the United States has previously ‘castigated’ countries such as China, Russia and Iran for ‘more restrictive approaches’ to the internet. In the article, Clarke quotes Josephine Wolff, assistant professor of cybersecurity policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, as saying: “You’re really seeing the United States adopt a strategy that previously we mostly would have associated with China. China is a place where services like Facebook or Google are blocked or slowed down significantly, because of concerns about security risks or data collection.”

As the internet becomes increasingly competitive, there are bound to be further questions raised over national security concerns – and internet governance is perhaps an area of foreign affairs that the UK can play a role as mediator. In February, I wrote for the BFPG on the future of internet governance: “With the internet more important than ever for communication, global trade, expression and more, it’s essential that the United Kingdom plays a role – and convenes conversations between the global giants on internet governance. With policy-makers looking to connect the remaining two-thirds of nations – the way in which the internet is governed will be increasingly important. In order to protect data privacy, media freedoms, free expression, and access to services – the UK must have a seat at the table when it comes to internet governance.”

Since then, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, globalisation and technological solutions have been thrown even further into focus when it comes to foreign policy debate – and as the UK grapples with its own debate on the future relationship with China, it is clear that platforms like TikTok won’t be vanishing from the foreign policy debate any time soon.


Matt Gillow

Matt is the Communications & Events Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.