Published by The Lawfare Institute
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U.S. national security policymakers are working aggressively to push back China’s global market advance in 5G and artificial intelligence technology. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is progressing unfettered in a parallel technological campaign: expanding global blockchain infrastructure.
Earlier this year, Beijing launched the Blockchain-Based Service Network (BSN), a system of low-cost backend architecture on which software developers around the world can build blockchain applications—including digital assets such as cryptocurrencies. The launch happened a few months after Chinese President Xi Jinping pressed for the nation to leverage blockchain technology to complement the rising economic importance of big data and the “internet of things.” This BSN has received little attention in the U.S.—but if the network gains significant international adoption, it could give the CCP greater influence in digital commerce and complicate U.S. economic statecraft. For decades, U.S. financial authorities have benefited from the ubiquity of U.S. computer infrastructure in global business. The BSN is trying to challenge that norm.
According to the BSN website, the network’s purpose is to become the “blockchain Internet.” CCP leadership believes that blockchain technology offers a foundational infrastructure for future technological innovation and that China should set the global standards in that arena. To begin doing so, China is inviting blockchain developers to build decentralized software applications on the BSN’s Chinese-run servers, even though some of the servers are located outside China. The BSN describes itself as a “cross-cloud, cross-portal, cross-framework, global infrastructure network.” Essentially, it is the plumbing for people to run decentralized computer systems via the network.
China’s State Information Center, an entity under China’s macroeconomic planning agency, oversees the BSN. The center designs information security policies and processes economic data for the CCP. Several state-owned tech companies, such as financial services firm China UnionPay and telecom firm China Mobile, run the technical architecture, such as the network’s nodes and servers. The Chinese government argues that software developers around the world would save money by using the BSN’s computer infrastructure. The BSN charges several hundred dollars per year for server space that would cost developers tens of thousands of dollars if it were provided by Amazon Web Services (AWS) or even the private Chinese internet firm Alibaba. At the same time, the BSN uses cloud space provided by U.S. firms AWS and Google Cloud, in addition to Chinese tech firms, for building its infrastructure. But according to the BSN user manual, its services are cheaper because the network facilitates more efficient server usage by sharing computer resource space across users through a permissioned distributed ledger system. The CCP’s pitch is that the BSN uses a distributed system to take advantage of traditional server architecture and innovate beyond it.
Several popular and highly capitalized blockchain projects have taken up the BSN on its offer, integrating their “chains” with the BSN and enabling developers to create applications on the network. Some of the blockchains, such as Ethereum and Tezos, include many developers from Western nations. These blockchain protocols are more robust than Bitcoin, enabling developers to code “smart” contracts that facilitate more complex transactions and programs. In recent years, projects associated with these newer blockchains have raised hundreds of millions of dollars with the aim of creating decentralized applications and business ventures.
So why hasn’t the BSN received more attention within U.S. national security policy circles? As blockchain experts will admit, decentralized applications have yet to find much market adoption outside cryptocurrency speculation. Despite great hype around blockchain and distributed ledger technology, even die-hard cryptocurrency enthusiasts are still waiting for a decentralized “killer app” that proves the tech might “reinvent the global financial system,” as one blockchain developer who raised millions for a project, but saw his company flounder, put it.
The elusiveness of global blockchain adoption is exactly why China’s strategy deserves attention. For one, the BSN is trying to significantly reduce the input costs of blockchain development, which would increase cost-savings and help keep blockchain projects alive as they seek users and profitability. A similar dynamic enabled China’s outsized role in Bitcoin mining. Chinese computer processing companies dominate the Bitcoin mining industry largely because they operate in Chinese provinces where hydroelectricity is cheap, allowing them to sustain wider profit margins even when Bitcoin’s volatile price drops.
The BSN is also important because it accentuates China’s broader push toward an information-based economy and supports its strategy to dominate in financial technology and become a “cyber superpower.” In recent years, Chinese leaders have stressed that the Chinese economy must pursue “informatization,” developing programmable and “smart” business systems built on internet and device data, machine learning and analytics. Blockchain experimentation, whether it has scaled up to wide use or not, is where researchers are working on many difficult computer science challenges associated with the internet ecosystems—such as digital identity management. Research and trials with distributed ledger technology will likely unlock technological insights and breakthroughs.
An analogous situation occurred in the United States during the space race. NASA harnessed tremendous intellectual and technical capital to enable the moon landing and further space exploration. This led to a variety of spinoff inventions, from global positioning systems (GPS) to freeze-dried food and camera phones. In the same way, blockchain technology is a means to the end of greater technological sophistication.
The BSN is about not just bringing blockchain-based activity to servers in China but also expanding Chinese reach into servers outside the country. The network will have infrastructure in Hong Kong, but also in San Francisco and at locations in Australia, Brazil, France, Japan and South Africa. The CCP is not subtle about its aim to bring this international plumbing under its influence. As the BSN white paper says, “Once the BSN is deployed globally, it will become the only global infrastructure network autonomously innovated by Chinese entities and for which network access is Chinese-controlled.”
For this reason, the BSN could undermine movements for human rights and political freedom. Much of the blockchain developer community has strong libertarian leanings, promoting decentralized applications as means for “censorship resistance” and to fund protests against authoritarianism and state brutality. But ironically, the BSN’s decentralization effort is authoritarian owned. The CCP accepts the irony and has bifurcated the BSN just as it has separated Chinese use of the internet, where the government blocks many sites from users in China. The system will run with a domestic BSN portal—where developers can build only closed, “permissioned” applications and where decentralized cryptocurrencies are not allowed to function—and a global portal, which will allow “open” applications but will not be accessible to users in China. It seems unlikely, however, that the global portal will be allowed to operate freely if the CCP finds it hosting applications that greatly counter the party’s interests, like programs that would support anti-CCP protesters in Hong Kong or Uighur human rights advocates. And just as the National Basketball Association in the U.S. dares not to criticize Beijing’s repressive tactics because of the money it earns in China, it is feasible that the leaders of various blockchain projects would not voice objections to China’s human rights violations if their chains rely on Chinese infrastructure.
Looking further ahead, national security policymakers should watch out for the BSN’s potential to hinder future investigations and enforcement actions relating to digital currencies. The U.S. Department of Justice recently released a cryptocurrency enforcement framework that lays out significant national security wins against cryptocurrency-related crime—including interdicting Islamic State and al-Qaeda Bitcoin funding campaigns, disrupting North Korean hackers laundering stolen cryptocurrency, indicting ransomware operatives in Iran, charging Russian operatives using cryptocurrency in election interference activities, and breaking up fentanyl smugglers operating out of China. The Justice Department has ordered hundreds of cryptocurrency wallet assets to be seized and the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control has added dozens of cryptocurrency addresses to its sanctions list. All of these actions against illicit cryptocurrency activity are helped by the fact that digital transactions, even blockchain-based ones, currently run on the backbone of mostly U.S. infrastructure. In today’s financial crime investigations, digital evidence is key and securing it often requires accessing physical or remote servers. Most of the world’s internet activity touches the U.S. somehow. In fact, up to 70 percent of global internet traffic flows daily through data centers operating in Loudoun County, Virginia.
The national security risks of the CCP gaining dominance in any digital realm are pretty clear. In February, U.S. Attorney General William Barr warned, “If China establishes sole dominance over 5G, it will be able to dominate the opportunities arising from a stunning range of emerging technologies that will be dependent on, and interwoven with, the 5G platform.” The same reasoning should be applied to blockchain technology.
And if illicit actors begin using decentralized applications built on the BSN to harm American interests, the U.S. would find itself needing Chinese cooperation to acquire digital data evidence and intelligence on the network. Given Washington’s and Beijing’s recent tug-of-war over TikTok and data security, the U.S. may find China less than cooperative with such data requests.
The BSN is not going to upend U.S. domination of the internet anytime soon. But it indicates a new, and sensible, Chinese strategy. In areas like 5G technology and artificial intelligence, where the U.S. is highly engaged, China’s strategy has been to outdo the U.S. head-on. The BSN approach, by contrast, is to build a Chinese advantage in a space where the U.S. gives little attention.
The good news is that while China’s blockchain internet is in its infancy, the U.S. has time to follow its development and respond accordingly. The U.S. government should assess the network’s growth, identify the sorts of applications it supports, and carefully track its successes and failures. Analysts at the departments of Treasury and Commerce must become familiar with the market for decentralized apps. U.S. Cyber Command needs to map the network and understand where BSN infrastructure overlaps with U.S. servers. And software developers should think twice about investing their intellectual and financial capital into infrastructure controlled directly by the CCP. If the BSN does scale up, so will China’s digital authoritarianism.