By Phil Stewart
The United States appears poised to heighten scrutiny of Chinese investment in Silicon Valley to better shield sensitive technologies seen as vital to U.S. national security, current and former U.S. officials tell Reuters.
Of particular concern is China’s interest in fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, which have increasingly attracted Chinese capital in recent years. The worry is that cutting-edge technologies developed in the United States could be used by China to bolster its military capabilities and perhaps even push it ahead in strategic industries.
The U.S. government is now looking to strengthen the role of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the inter-agency committee that reviews foreign acquisitions of U.S. companies on national security grounds.
An unreleased Pentagon report, viewed by Reuters, warns that China is skirting U.S. oversight and gaining access to sensitive technology through transactions that currently don’t trigger CFIUS review. Such deals would include joint ventures, minority stakes and early-stage investments in start-ups.
“We’re examining CFIUS to look at the long-term health and security of the U.S. economy, given China’s predatory practices” in technology, said a Trump administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis weighed into the debate on Tuesday, calling CFIUS “outdated” and telling a Senate hearing: “It needs to be updated to deal with today’s situation.”
CFIUS is headed by the Treasury Department and includes nine permanent members including representatives from the departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, State and Energy. The CFIUS panel is so secretive it normally does not comment after it makes a decision on a deal.
Under former President Barack Obama, CFIUS stopped a series of attempted Chinese acquisitions of high-end chip makers.
Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, is now drafting legislation that would give CFIUS far more power to block some technology investments, a Cornyn aide said.
“Artificial intelligence is one of many leading-edge technologies that China seeks and that has potential military applications,” said the Cornyn aide, who declined to be identified.
“These technologies are so new that our export control system has not yet figured out how to cover them, which is part of the reason they are slipping through the gaps in the existing safeguards,” the aide said.
The legislation would require CFIUS to heighten scrutiny of buyers hailing from nations identified as potential threats to national security. CFIUS would maintain the list, the aide said, without specifying who would create it.
Cornyn’s legislation would not single out specific technologies that would be subject to CFIUS scrutiny. But it would provide a mechanism for the Pentagon to lead that identification effort, with input from the U.S. technology sector, the Commerce Department, and the Energy Department, the aide said.
James Lewis, an expert on military technology at the Center for Security and International Studies, said the U.S. government is playing catch-up.
“The Chinese have found a way around our protections, our safeguards, on technology transfer in foreign investment. And they’re using it to pull ahead of us, both economically and militarily,” Lewis said.
This article (U.S. weighs restricting Chinese investment in artificial intelligence) was originally published on Reuters and syndicated by The Event Chronicle.