If the U.S. is to maintain its economic and political leadership in the 21st century, one thing it cannot do is lose control of the international arena.
That was the overall message that emerged from a Sept. 20 House Financial Services Committee hearing on the national security impacts of the growing use of alternative payment systems.
Calling payment systems “the lifeblood of the financial sector,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), chair of the Subcommittee on National Security, International Development and Monetary Policy, warned that “allies and adversaries alike are taking critical steps to de-dollarize their economies, to develop new methods to facilitate cross-border money transfers and to control the plumbing of global finance.”
As a result, he added, “In the years ahead, global leadership in the 21st century will be determined in part by the oversight and influence of the payment sector.”
The hearing was dominated by the discussion of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) — most notably China’s e-CNY, or digital yuan, and the U.S. digital dollar — and cryptocurrencies.
APEs are Growing
But it is a mistake to think of those as the only alternative payments ecosystems (APEs), said Scott Dueweke, a fellow focused on the matter at the Wilson Center, a quasi-governmental think tank.
Along with familiar systems like PayPal and Western Union, there are Russia-favored alternatives like WebMoney and Perfect Money, China’s $45 trillion-plus WeChat Pay and AliPay, mobile payment systems, remittance systems and stored-value card systems.
“Focusing only on cryptocurrency risks misunderstanding this global thriving ecosystem,” Dueweke said. “I define this as an ecosystem because they are all connected through hundreds of virtual currency exchanges, converting one alternative payment system for another and another, or to and from fiat,” often with anonymity, or poor-to-nonexistent know your customer (KYC) safeguards.
APEs have “exploded in popularity and viability, becoming woven into the global social fabric … [providing] a growing and capable set of interconnected non-bank financial channels that may or may not ever touch the traditional financial system,” Dueweke said.
That bank-centric financial system is seeing the ground shift beneath it, he added, “as Chinese and Russian new payment systems bypass SWIFT and other Western-dominated financial backbones [that are] no longer the domain of FinTech startups nor just limited to cryptocurrencies,” allowing nation states to play “the Great Game on this new terrain.”
The Central Question
Yet for all that, Dueweke still called CBDCs the biggest threat to U.S. financial power.
“If China, alone or with [Brazil, Russia and India], is able to combine their non-crypto virtual currencies with a viable CBDC,” he told the subcommittee, there will soon “be a real financial and national security problem beyond your ability to regulate.”
For the U.S., progress on a CBDC is “especially important” because it’s where China can “undercut the dominance of the dollar,” said Carla Norrlöf, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies the role economics play in geopolitics.
At the same time, she added, that doesn’t mean the U.S. needs a digital dollar at this point, as China isn’t yet able to compete.
“For the Chinese, however, it is quite crucial to have a central bank digital currency in order to get where anywhere close to where the United States is today,” Norrlöf said.
Part of the Solution
Far from being part of the problem, cryptocurrencies can be part of the solution, Jonathan Levin, co-founder of blockchain data firm Chainalysis, told the hearing.
Saying that China has made “enormous progress” in this arena in the past 15 years and is now moving to export these domestic payments systems through investments in foreign FinTech firms and its forthcoming CBDC, Levin argued that “cryptocurrencies actually mark the first innovation that is consistent with U.S. values and poses a real competitive threat to China’s financial innovation strategy and their bid to own the financial rails for the 21st century.”
While bitcoin and its successors are considered anonymous, they are more accurately pseudonymous, with every transaction immutably recorded on a publicly accessible blockchain.
Saying that it’s easier in many cases to investigate the “illicit use of cryptocurrencies than other traditional means of payment or some of the alternative payment systems,” Levin pointed to his firm’s recent assistance in a government investigation that seized $30 million worth of stolen cryptocurrency from North Korean hackers.
“The same qualities that make blockchain such a force for good — permissionless, decentralized, cross-border value transfer at the speed of the internet — also make it attractive to illicit actors who want to move funds quickly cross border,” added Ari Redbord, a former prosecutor and head of legal and government affairs at TRM Labs, a blockchain intelligence firm.
“But the reality is we’ve never had more visibility on financial flows,” he said. “In many instances, it is actually easier to investigate cases involving the illicit use of cryptocurrencies than other traditional means of payment or some of the alternative payment systems that we’re talking about.”
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