Friday News Roundup — July 9, 2021
DiDi Fallout & Further Decoupling; Russia’s New Security Strategy; SOCOM Super Soldiers; Agriculture’s Vertical Future?
Greetings from Washington, D.C., where the summer quiet of the Independence Day recess has followed a long weekend of patriotic celebrations. However, events around the world failed to get the memo of an extended holiday. Widespread ransomware attacks through a service vendor now have eyes turning to how the Biden administration will respond after drawing a cyber “red line” during the Geneva Summit with Putin. With the hastening withdrawal from Afghanistan, the advances of the Taliban raise questions about the future of the Kabul government — and the safety of those who worked and fought alongside the international coalition. Finally, closer to home, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse is a reminder of the ongoing instability in Haiti.
This week at CSPC, we hosted FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr for a fireside chat with CSPC Abshire Chair Mike Rogers about the importance of 5G and the future of 6G wireless technology. We’re also proud to release our newest report on 5G and the road ahead to 6G, which identifies many areas where needed next steps for 5G also put us on the right path for 6G leadership. In the Diplomatic Courier, Joshua reviewed Spymaster’s Prism, a collection of stories about the covert competition between Washington and Moscow.
In this week’s roundup Dan looks at the Didi IPO and Beijing’s data crackdown and what it means about U.S.-China decoupling and our own data management policies. Joshua looks at Russia’s new national security strategy and what it says about Moscow’s perspectives on domestic and international affairs, while Ethan covers SOCOM’s research into human enhancement. Michael looks ahead to the future of agriculture and vertical farming. As always, we end with some news you may have missed.
What Didi’s Data Tells Us about Decoupling
“A big F-U to the United States” is how one hedge fund manager described what took place this week, as Chinese regulators cracked down on Didi Chuxing, the “Uber of China”, just days after its Wall Street IPO. This IPO was highly anticipated by U.S. investors eager to invest in China’s tech giants — tech giants eager to seek capital abroad, but increasingly under stricter and stricter regulation by Beijing. Four days after Didi went public and raised $4.4 billion in the second-largest U.S. IPO by a Chinese firm, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced an investigation into Didi’s data management practices, banning the app from app stores and prohibiting new users — wiping out about $15 billion in market value from Didi’s American depositary shares.
While the timing of the move was highly unfortunate for U.S. investors, some reports have indicated that Chinese regulators wanted Didi to hold off its IPO, which went ahead anyway. Furthermore, three other firms came under CAC investigation this week, and all of those are also listed on U.S. stock exchanges. While this should raise further concerns about listing Chinese companies on U.S. exchanges — particularly given the lack of transparency about those companies, difficulties in applying U.S. audit standards, and increasing application of state secrecy rules to business — this is less about the money, and more about the data.
While the CCP have announced plans to address the loophole by which Chinese companies listed onshore could also sell shares of units incorporated overseas, the main focus of the announcements by Chinese authorities have been focused on investigations related to users’ data and what access to that data is given to overseas investors and regulators when listing overseas. While U.S. lawmakers talk about toughening standards on Chinese firms on U.S. exchanges, Beijing cracks down on firms looking to list abroad. Here, Beijing can hope that Hong Kong, stripped of free expression and civil liberties, can serve as the revolving door for international capital for Chinese companies — always on CCP terms.
While financial media in the U.S. is understandably more focused on the financial ramifications, the focus in Beijing is on data. These regulatory measures have come under strengthened authorities for the CAC to address privacy and national security concerns related to foreign access to Chinese data. Dave Wertime and Shen Lu at protocol (a fantastic China tech newsletter) break it down:
Powerful Chinese tech firms like Alibaba, Tencent and DiDi own detailed, real-time dashboards into major portions of Chinese life — from what people want and buy to what they tell their friends in private to where they’re going each day. The Party wants to be sure it can see those dashboards — and that no one else outside the companies can. As Eurasia Group tech expert Xiaomeng Lu told us: “It sends a signal that Beijing is uncomfortable with Chinese tech companies’ overseas listings, particularly those that may involve data-related national security implications.”
China is moving rapidly to create its own frameworks for data management and security, with a focus on protecting Chinese data from foreigners while ensuring continued CCP control. Foreign companies should expect further attention as well, as Tesla already faced the ire of Beijing and state-managed Chinese social media over the data collected by its cars — and complied with data localization regulations.
U.S. and other foreign companies should expect more of this, both in terms of greater regulatory scrutiny as well as increased state control in the Chinese economy. At the same time, it requires us to get our own data protection and management regimes and regulations in order. At the same time, given that Beijing now sees less downside to upsetting the relationship with Wall Street and U.S. investors, it remains to be seen whether this presages further deterioration in the Sino-American relationship — or whether they simply expect the bankers to queue orderly for Hong Kong visas.
While we have dawdled on data regulation and dealt with foriegn data harvesting concerns like TikTok and WeChat in bureaucratically, financially, and legally shambolic ways, Xi Jinping is moving ahead with his own approach to decouple, at least digitally, on Beijing’s terms, not ours.
Vladimir Putin Approves Russia’s New National Security Strategy
Joshua C. Huminski
As the United States was winding down for the Fourth of July weekend, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, signed off on the country’s new national security strategy. The 44-page document, much like the U.S. national security strategy, outlines its interests and priorities, but in perhaps a broader definition of the term to include a focus on domestic issues (which are not addressed so centrally in Washington’s version.
Updated every six years, the document builds off many of the same themes contained in the 2015 version, but reflects a markedly different world with considerably deteriorated relations with the West. It provides a fascinating insight into Moscow’s thinking and worldview — and it is a worldview that should give Washington, Brussels, and other European capitals a moment of pause.
At a macro-level, it should be noted that this is a strategy document, very much in the same way that the White House’s national security strategy is an outline of intents, objectives, and priorities, but not necessarily a specific itemization of policy actions. It is meant to serve as a broad overview of the government’s intentions and worldview, but does not reflect programmatic activity. Rather, ministries and offices will be tasked with implementing the strategy’s guidance in concrete terms (whether or not they do, is another question entirely).
It should not, however, be dismissed out of hand as merely an empty policy document. It reflects Moscow’s view of both internal and external dynamics, and its priorities to address those trends. Here, while there will undoubtedly be a great deal of focus on the outward-facing elements of the strategy, there is a considerable amount of inward focus, and much of it is positive, and will be addressed, below.
The national security strategy contains, what for the West would appear to be, a distinct paranoid tone. The authors write, “The strengthening of military dangers and military threats to the Russian Federation is facilitated by attempts to exert pressure on Russia, its allies, and partners, the build-up of [NATO’s] military infrastructure near Russian borders, the intensification of intelligence activities, and practicing the use of large military formations and nuclear weapons against the Russian Federation.” They note that “actions of some countries are aimed at instigating disintegration processes in the Commonwealth of Independent States in order to destroy Russia’s ties with its traditional allies.”
This should not come as a surprise, but its bluntness may do so. Russia’s behavior when taken at face value — aggressive intelligence operations overseas, mass mobilization on Ukraine and Crimea’s borders, increased tensions in the Black Sea, cyber operations, et. al. — seem irrational to Western eyes and analysis. Yet, if one looks at it through the lens of the national security strategy, and with the view that Russia sees itself on a war-footing, those actions become all the more sensible.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s lengthy essay “The Law, The Rights, and The Rules” published the week before Putin signed off on the national security strategy, is equally illustrative of this under siege mentality. The essay, which should be taken with a grain of salt — not the least of which because at one point it confuses the definition of ruler (measuring measuring stick vice leader) and suggests that Europe is teaching that Jesus was bisexual — articulates what could be seen as legitimate grievances from Moscow’s perspectives.
Arguing against the “rules-based order” Lavrov writes, ‘“The beauty of these Western “rules” lies precisely in the fact that they lack any specific content. When someone acts against the will of the West, it immediately responds with a groundless claim that “the rules have been broken” (without bothering to present any evidence) and declares its “right to hold the perpetrators accountable.”’ Lavrov, ever the canny operator, fails to address any of Russia’s misdeeds or transgressions, and attempts to portray Russia as innocent of all charges. His language is very much echoed in the national security strategy, which says that the West has a “desire to isolate the Russian Federation and the use of double standards in international politics”
Moscow acknowledges that it is committed to diplomacy to resolve conflicts, but the head of the Security Council and notable hawk, Nikolai Patrushev, warned that Moscow could take “symmetric and asymmetric measures to thwart or avert unfriendly actions that threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” by foreign states such as the United States and NATO.
Yet, for Moscow, the threats are not limited to geo-politics alone: “the ‘Westernization’ of culture increases the danger that the Russian Federation will lose its cultural sovereignty.” According to Moscow, “traditional spiritual-moral and cultural-historical values are under active attack from the US and its allies.” Here, Russia sees its values, history, role in the world, and even language under assault from those that would “rehabilitate fascism and incite interethnic and inter-confessional conflicts.”
There is also a notable emphasis on values, values which Moscow sees as under siege: “traditional Russian spiritual, moral, cultural, and historical values are being actively attacked by the U.S. and its allies, as well as by transnational corporations.” These groups, “have an informational and psychological influence on individual, group, and public consciousness by spreading social and moral attitudes that contradict the traditions, convictions, and beliefs of the peoples of the Russian Federation.”
In response, the government plans to take measures to protect Russian culture, art, and entertainment, and “traditional values”; strengthen its control over the rules of modern Russian language; defend against foreign ideologies and philosophies; provide more nationalist education; and, enhance Russia’s global cultural role. Whether this last part presages the emergence of R-Pop akin to K-Pop or Volga-Wood like Bollywood, remains to be seen.
The national security strategy also has an extensive inward-looking focus on Russia itself, the country, the society, and the economy. There are references to improving the country’s infrastructure, encouraging a healthy population, addressing working conditions, and other goals, such as making Russia a destination for leading researchers and scientists.
On the economy, for Moscow, growth is less a priority than Russian self-sufficiency and self-reliance, stressing the need to ‘develop “the national infrastructure of financial markets, including payment infrastructure” and overcome “dependence on third countries in this sphere”’ — clearly a reference to the global SWIFT system and the risks of potential isolation in response to ill-behavior. It interestingly talks about the post-Covid global recession, from which many countries are emerging. The government also wants to “strengthen control over foreign investment in strategically important sectors.”
Notably, the government also wants to restructure “the national economy on a modern technological basis, [and] its diversification and development on the basis of the use of low-carbon technologies.” It is a novel acknowledgement of the risks of climate change, but one that will necessitate a massive overhaul of the economy away from hydro-carbons to something else.
The national security strategy offers an interesting look at Russia’s worldview and its internal concerns. It is a document that very much sees the country as under siege both conventionally and unconventionally, and that paranoid mindset is driving the country’s external behavior, and being used as a justification to crackdown at home on dissent, dissidents, and anything that could be seen as a threat to the status quo e.g. the labeling of organizations as “foreign agents”. Again, this document is not an outline of actions, but merely an articulation of interests, priorities, and concerns. What comes next will be of interest, but in reality, little change is likely to occur. While the geopolitical dynamics between 2015 and 2021 have gotten notably worse and Putin and the siloviki have become more paranoid, the trendlines are decidedly towards a more Putin-esque Putin regime.
SOCOM’s push to create super soldiers
It would be just my luck that, after I separated from the Special Operations Enterprise following 11 years and too many deployment related injuries and mishaps, the command is looking to implement a dramatic shift in its human performance approach. Within the next year, SOCOM is expecting to move into clinical trials for a pill that aims to inhibit or reduce the degenerative effects of aging and injury, part of its broader initiative to achieve improved human endurance for the future battlefields.
To clarify any initial misconceptions, USSOCOM isn’t about to start creating physical traits that do not preexist in human bodies naturally; and don’t worry, I shall refrain from drawing too many Captain America or Jean-Claude Van Damme ‘Universal Soldier’ parallels (besides, Universal Soldier II with Micahel Jai White was a vastly superior movie). Rather, this next iteration of human performance enablement is the evolution of a total human weapons system initiative taken up by the command many years ago. The old adage of America’s elite with regards to training and battlefield fitness and nutrition was once an archaic pattern of running a lot (“so that when you hit, it’s the ground that hurts”), lift heavy, and take ranger candy (800mg ibuprofen).
The cyclic deployment demands changed the needs of the operators, and SOCOM introduced a variety of health initiatives aimed at prolonging the long-term operability of its teams. Among these new initiatives were nutrition and dietary education, contracted strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers, and dedicated medical and rehabilitation specialists embedded within most of the line units charged with our nation’s most sensitive and difficult missions. It isn’t to say that for whatever reason, SOF personnel are more deserving than the conventional bulk of the military, but for the dollars invested in recruiting, training, and deploying the specialized component of the armed services, the human performance program signaled a major shift in the manner that it treats its most important asset.
As the analysis will detail below, this new human enhancement isn’t as if servicemen and women are being shot up with steroids, but rather, a pharmaceutical micro proprietary compound that slows the natural entropy of the human body. So the ethics of this move by SOCOM remain above the belt and seemingly humane. I can personally vouch for the sentiment that if given the option, many of my former SOCOM colleagues wouldn’t hesitate for a second to receive performance enhancing supplementation if it meant they would be better able to perform the mission, so long as it was done in a safe, professionally-monitored and regulated manner. As it stands, slowing the aging process is the next-best alternative.
Warzones change, but the s*ck never will
“Embrace the suck” was regaled often, a term that allegedly harkens back to some time during the Vietnam war (if this podcast is to be believed), but we can all agree that warfighters have been mentoring new teammates about the suck since humans first started throwing rocks at one another. The suck, as it were, took a unique twist in the GWOT era, but remained intact just like every other war. The logistics of hyper-intense demands in a warzone are already incredible, even during the Afghanistan-era of nearby warm bases and the flexibility of multiple missions in a single night due to close support architecture. But the hikes up the rugged Hindu Kush, or swarthy jungle-like terraces of Nangarhar, or sweltering ovens in Baghdad and Fallujah were taxing on even the fittest of operators. Now imagine the potential challenge of logistically supporting a forward-staged team engaged in Advanced-Force Operations (AFO) across the expanse of the Pacific theater or the Arctic zones — near impossible.
The potential for injury, advanced fatigue, and overall performance degradation in denied environments puts a difficult problem in front of SOCOM — how to make its operators better capable of operating for longer durations and under increased demands. Like most aspects of the strategic competition paradigm, our adversaries and opponents have no qualms about bending ethical rules to gain an advantage over the United States and allies, exemplified by China’s People’s Liberation Army conducting biological enhancements on its soldiers (exempli Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole), while Russia apparently aims to replace its whole infantry cadre with robots.
No matter how the competition stacks up, one thing remains invariable and certain — the advantage no longer resides at the supremacy level with American and allied forces in the new era of potential conflict. Where in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. armed forces enjoyed absolute mastery of the battlespace across air, land (excepting the human terrain and mobility of insurgent forces on their home turf), space, and supply, the next possible conflict will be entirely upended by competent, professional forces fighting closer to their logistical and support hubs than U.S. personnel will.
Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NAD+)
Through the allocation of Other Transaction Authority funds (not to be confused with the now-defunct OCO pot of yesteryear), SOCOM has engaged in a private partnership with MetroBiotech, LLC in developing the human performance small molecule. That particular mind bending chemical jargon at the subheading is the target of these precursor proprietary blends, where NAD+ contributes to various body processes, including mitochondrial dysfunction, inflammation, and a myriad of aging and disease byproducts of this thing we call living. NAD+ is incredibly important in regulating the function of the body in the aging process, and the small molecule pill alleges to slow the effects of such aging declines found across typical humans — processes that degrade at a much faster clip when subjected to the demands of high-intensity activities.
Notably, this is no bioengineering gambit along the likes of CRISPR, which allows human engineers to alter the genetic coding of the human DNA strand to target disease-prone patterns. So even with this evolution by SOCOM to usher in a new era of human performance, the nerdy dream of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear dystopian universe with its genome engineering remains a figment of amazing video game lore. Rather than altering human DNA, which as we’ve stated already, irks the ethical boundaries of who and what we are as leaders of the free world, NAD+ seeks to augment the natural capabilities of the human body in a way that better enables the individual to maintain high performance thresholds in demanding environments.
As SOCOM spokesperson Cmdr. Tim Hawkins (U.S. Navy) stated, “this is about enhancing the mission readiness of our forces by improving performance characteristics that typically decline with age”. While there are always young men and women ready to take up the call of service and volunteer a second time for a special mission team, retaining the institutional knowledge in the form of ongoing physical readiness is a potential game changer for the Special Operations enterprise.
The Future of Farming Is Tech
Early July is the beginning of summer vegetable harvest season, and it is wonderful. Last weekend in my garden, I was excited to see the first buds that will soon be delicious hot peppers. A year ago this time — when I spent a lot more time gardening for meditation purposes — I was already harvesting the first of what became a torrent of zucchini, and the nearby farmstand now has a wide variety of fruits and vegetables marked “local”. This bucolic image of production that hearkens back to a simpler time, however, is not really how most people get their food, and probably never will be again. Instead, technology is likely to produce new ways of growing food that will hopefully also play a role in fighting climate change and environmental degradation.
In recent decades, technology has completely transformed food production. The Green Revolution made food production fantastically more efficient. For reference, if crop yields were the same today as in 1961, the total amount of cropland needed to feed the global population would be more than double what it is today. An incremental area equal to the land area of the United States and Brazil combined would have come under cultivation or people would have starved in a malthusian nightmare.
Climate change and ecological degradation, however, threatens to upend this model. Taking delicious, delicious broccoli as an example, U.S. production is concentrated in California’s Central Valley, approximately 100% of which is in a state of extreme drought. Nearly all of the broccoli that does not come from the Central Valley is imported from Mexico, part of the global food supply chain that ensures that we can get fresh produce in the supermarket year round. That supply chain is wonderful — it means that local crop failures are far less likely to result in famine and is a major reason that 21st Century cuisine is so varied and delicious — but it is also very carbon intensive at a time when we should be thinking about ways to decarbonize.
In the (hopefully near) future, vertical farming can play an important role in this story. Indoor (also known as vertical) farming involves building large, enclosed greenhouses with LED lighting to grow crops, usually hydroponically in nutrient-supplied water rather than in soil. These kinds of farms already exist, but are nowhere near at sufficient scale to change the food production calculus at a national or global level.
If they do, they will allow food production to take place much closer to consumers and in areas that are less susceptible to climate change. Transport miles for food may not be a major contributor to carbon emissions, but long supply chains are a factor in food going to waste: more than 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions are caused by food that is never eaten because it spoils in transit. Indoor farming will also produce food with a tiny fraction of the water necessary for traditional farming methods. Considering that food production is the top consumer of water worldwide, this will also allow substantially more conservation and ecological restoration.
The biggest reason vertical farming is not yet ready for prime time is its energy requirements. Harnessing energy to power lights to feed photosynthetic plants that would otherwise directly metabolize sunlight seems unnecessarily complicated. Using anything other than 100% clean energy to power those lights is downright wasteful. The good news is that the rapid technological advances in solar and wind energy make it imaginable that vertical farms could be scalable in the near future. The first of these farms that would be economically viable and sustainable would be for vegetables — the ones featured in a recent New York Times article focus on leafy greens and tomatoes — but the long term dream is to make the system viable for cereals like corn and wheat.
The reason that this could all be worth it has to do with land use. Food production accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A quarter of that is caused by changes in land use. One of the most destructive things that happens in global food production is the transformation of land from forests or grasslands to food production: plants that had been natural stores of carbon are uprooted and usually burned, releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. One estimate published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that a simulated vertical wheat farm could produce 200 times as much wheat per year as the global average farm. A major contributor to this is that indoor, climate controlled farms can have ideal year-round growing conditions, allowing up to five wheat harvests from the same land in a single year.
Replacing traditional farms with these futuristic techno-farms would allow land to be reforested instead of deforested. The IPCC suggests that reforestation and afforestation could play a major role in reducing the effects of climate change, potentially offsetting greenhouse gases produced in other areas. Soil carbon storage as part of a change of grassland use could capture even more carbon. As population grows in the coming decades and people become richer, food demand will increase substantially, so focusing on making food production maximally efficient will be critical.
Indoor farming alone will not be enough to address the climate implications of food production alone. In short, it misses the elephant in the room: cows. Livestock and fish farms account for 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions from food production; land use for livestock adds another 16%. The problem here is that meat is delicious and people would generally like to eat more of it, especially as they become wealthier. A global movement to reduce meat consumption will also be essential to feeding the world while fighting climate change, whether that comes from an ideological movement or something material like a carbon price or wider production of plant-based meat alternatives.
A lot of the dialogue around indoor farms presents a dichotomy between natural organic farming and technological and uncertain vertical farming. Organic farming has a lot of benefits compared to industrial farming methods: it generally uses less chemical fertilizer, reducing the carbon intensiveness of the farming; it prioritizes food for its taste, rather than for easy storage and transportation; and it places a premium on preserving the local ecosystem to allow for more food production in the future.
The reason this is a false dichotomy, however, is that organic food is still an expensive habit of the relatively wealthy. Some of this is supply constraints that might ease as more production is dedicated to organic, but only 7% of Americans say that most of the food they eat is organic, so there might be more demand that would be generated by increased supply. The overwhelming majority of food production in the United States is non-organic and is likely to stay that way until long after the point at which hard choices need to be made to prevent catastrophic climate change outcomes.
There is no silver bullet to preventing climate change; even within the agriculture segment of the economy there are multiple lines of effort that need to be taken simultaneously. Technological advancement in food production, however, can and probably needs to play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Imagining any other situation in the future would mean more emissions or greater risk of starvation around the world.
News You Might Have Missed
This week President Biden addressed his miss of the July 4th goal to have 70 percent of adults in the US vaccinated. Over the past few weeks there has been a steep decline in vaccination numbers and a rise in COVID-19 numbers with the presence of the new Delta variant. President Biden stated this week that his administration would send people door to door or even set up clinics at job sites. The president is reiterating that this is the time to be vaccinated, and he said “it sounds corny, but it’s a patriotic thing to do.” Critics feel the administration should do more such as mandating vaccination passports or requiring schools and jobs to require vaccines. Some members of Congress feel going door to door or forcing people to be vaccinated is an invasion of privacy. The president’s abilities to implement these tactics are limited, and the administration has declined to contemplate more aggressive steps. The United States has a surplus of vaccines, yet the demand for them has decreased. In the following months, it will be up to the citizens of this country to increase the vaccination numbers as we continue to fight against the pandemic.
On Tuesday, a Colombian court accused 10 members of the military of murdering 120 civilians and “disappearing” 24 people. These murders occurred between January 2007 and August 2008 in the Catatumbo region of Colombia’s Norte de Santander province, as a way for soldiers to boost their body counts by classifying these civilians as rebel fighters killed in combat. The accused include a general, six officers, three non-commissioned officers, and a civilian. This was part of a “false-positive” scandal in which members of Colombia’s army murdered at least 6,402 people between 2002 and 2008 during the government’s war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist guerilla insurgency. The victims included farmers, retailers, and others. This was the first time Colombia’s special Jurisdiction for Peace tribunal has accused members of the army for this incident. The accused will have 30 days to accept the charges, or receive a sentence of up to 20 years in jail in a civilian trial.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.