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U.S. Trade Missions Are a Key Element in Foreign Policy

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The United States has used international trade as part of its foreign policy for decades. From “Nixon goes to China” in the early 1970s to implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994—or the imposition of trade sanctions on governments hostile to U.S. national interests, such as Russia, Iran and North Korea—presidential administrations have used trade policy to strengthen alliances, partnerships and the nation’s international posture.

One less visible tool in the international trade policy toolkit is trade missions, overseas trips by government officials and business representatives organized by the International Trade Administration (ITA) within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

As new industries emerge, the ITA expands its list to include international outreach on its behalf, getting more granular as industry categories take shape. For instance, in September 2023, a trade mission set up by the ITA visited Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The focus of the trip: cybersecurity solutions.

“The cyber domain doesn’t have any geographical boundaries, so the response shouldn’t have any geographical boundaries,” said Ed Sealing, chief technology officer (CTO) of SealingTech, a Columbia, Maryland, based company that provides innovative cybersecurity solutions and services. “We have to start leaning into bridging the gap and providing an international response in the Asia [area of responsibility].”

Threats that appear in one country or industry easily spill over into other cyber terrains. And offensive cyber operations may be a precursor to more kinetic attacks. “Think of Ukraine getting its power grid knocked out by Russian hackers,” Sealing said.

While the evidence of a cyber attack escalating into the physical realm is slim, it is not zero; cyberspace does not yet have the internet equivalent of the Geneva Conventions.

Establishing a Common International Defense
Cyberspace is where the recent trade mission for cybersecurity companies plays a role. The U.S. Commerce Department described the Asia mission as a way to “[deepen] commercial ties with the U.S. in cybersecurity and other critical emerging technologies by strengthening joint efforts to safeguard our critical infrastructure and tech ecosystems from those who seek to undermine our national and economic security” Sealing said.

“As a company, we really want to contribute to free and open trade through cyberspace, but we also want to be that interoperability between international and coalition partners,” said Wade Saunders, SealingTech manager, Department of Defense, International Sales and FMS Accounts. “It’s in all our interests to have that combined front, that combined capability, and to protect the infrastructure of our partners as well as domestically.”

The threats that U.S. partners and allies face are the same as in the United States, which means the tools and techniques used can be applied globally. But policy and governance questions surrounding jurisdiction and government authorities in protecting cyberspace—and balancing them with civil privacy and corporate autonomy—still present challenges, for the United States and its partners.

SealingTech manufactures mobile servers, highly configurable “flyaway kits” that are modular and use small form-factor edge hardware, software and tools, and operational on the government’s unclassified and classified networks, commonly referred to as NIPRNet and SIPRNet, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, or JWICS, and coalition networks.

“These are not just for the military,” Sealing said. “There are applications for things like homeland security, incident response teams, natural disasters—anywhere you need to bring a high-capacity system because you don’t trust what’s there or it’s not there anymore. They’re compact, can fit in the overhead bin of airplanes and can be deployed with a small group, anywhere from two to four operators.”

Why Going on a Trade Mission Matters, to Company and Country
Companies looking to expand into overseas markets would do well to look at participating in trade missions, Saunders said.

“In these Department of Commerce trade missions, you not only interface with [prospective] commercial customers, you also get access to our embassy’s attaches … which kind of builds in the foreign military sales side of it. For us, that’s a part of the business we’re really looking to grow,” he said.

“Every group involved in the trade mission had their own agendas,” Sealing added. “For Commerce, it’s to increase exports. From our standpoint, it’s getting an understanding of foreign markets and building partnerships with commercial companies. Our commercial counterparts were selected as possible sellers and resellers. And like every good government entity, the military wants to work with a local entity [that] understands their needs and level of maturity.”

On the trade mission to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, SealingTech saw for itself what levels of concern there are about cybersecurity. Saunders observed it was a theme across the three Asian nations because of where they are located, but their approaches all seemed totally different.

“In our country, first was the U.S. military and their investment into cyber in general, then Cyber Command and specific cyber training curriculums, so for the last 10 years, the focus in the U.S. has been on a higher level of maturity, and more progress than some of these countries,” Sealing said. “On the other side, in Japan and South Korea both, the governments themselves take a little more interest and action in protecting the country as a whole, where here a lot of cyber is to protect U.S. entities and agencies. In Korea, for example, the government is able to block attacks into individual businesses, even mom-and-pop shops. They provide blanket protection and the ability to protect their entire internet infrastructure … versus the U.S., which natively our culture kind of prevents.”

There were a lot of questions from leaders in all the countries about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) cybersecurity framework, which is similar to but not the same as ISO 27000, the international standard. “They were very curious how we implement some of these compliances, and very interested in adopting them themselves,” Saunders said. “They know one size doesn’t fit all, but they [see the value of] taking best practices and applying them to their own infrastructures.”

Sealing said that in Japan, his team had the privilege of meeting with the Japanese political party heads. “In that conversation they were struggling with the concept of whether or not the government and/or military should have the authority to step in,” he said, similar to the way the U.S. struggles with that balance.

The visit to Taiwan was a little different, Sealing said. First, it was optional for the U.S. companies on the trip because of the geopolitics, and some of the participants opted not to go. “It does give you pause when you enter a country where China is operating overflights,” he said.

Also, there were “two different currents flowing there … It was B2B, but there also was a diplomatic current, as well. We were accompanied by Laurie Locascio, the director of NIST,” he said. “The U.S. is doing a lot of investment through the CHIPS Act, and we were traveling with the person in charge of [it] while she was there to facilitate other conversations.”

North Korea’s hack of Sony almost a decade ago marked a turning point in all these countries about cybersecurity, Sealing said. “If North Korea had sent soldiers into Sony, the military would have responded with soldiers. But the hack [raised the question], is it suddenly the military’s job to respond” to commercial intrusions by hostile states? “Those are the jurisdictional problems all countries are wrestling with.”

Pay Attention to the Culture Issues
One key to success in international markets is understanding the culture of the countries in which you wish to sell. But often it is easy to presume that countries in the same part of the world, while different from the U.S., are like each other.

This definitely is not the case with these three countries, SealingTech officials learned.

“Each one of these countries is different—they may be fairly close geographically, but they’re all very different culturally,” Sealing said.

Another nuance all the countries share is a dislike of pride and ego in business.

“A very U.S. approach in selling is ‘This is why we’re the best,’” Sealing said. “They have a different selling mindset. We were told by prospective partners, ‘Don’t tell them you’re the best thing since sliced bread.’ Otherwise, they’ll nod their heads and agree, and it will seem like the conversation is going the right way, but they’re just being respectful, which is simply part of their culture.”

As an account manager, Saunders picked up on this angle. “Take a very humble approach—we can offer a solution to this problem set, and we can work with you to do it in a way to meet your needs.”

Finding a partner in one of the trade mission’s destinations will determine long-term success. “If you have a local partner or reseller, that gets you over the hump of doing business in that country,” Saunders said. “Otherwise, you’ll have trouble with marketing and sales there, as well as support after the sale.”

Participating in a formal trade mission is not as simple as calling the regional Commerce representative and asking to be included. It does require some work on a company’s part, filing an application, and being selected,” Sealing said.

“We had to interview for this [with Commerce] to be selected, even though the department reached out to us and had done some research,” Saunders said. “The application process is pretty lengthy and requires lots of documentation. You really are selected based on the company’s attributes. So our advice to other U.S. companies is to dig into the Department of Commerce. They divide the states into regions, one representative per region. Reach out and create a relationship, and they can point you to a lot of unique opportunities. And they can help fund small business participation—they’ve got pretty extensive resources.”

SealingTech has since been selected and participated in the U.S. Aerospace & Defense Trade Mission to Romania and Poland last November and has been invited to the Eurasia Trade Winds trade mission in May. The company previously engaged with NATO’s Allied Command Transformation and has gained a Declaration of Eligibility from the Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security to compete for NATO requirements.

“This aligns with SealingTech’s goal of providing interoperable capability for government, private and coalition organizations to provide freedom and security within the cyber domain,” Sealing said. “We want to support the drive to interoperability internationally.”

For more information on SealingTech, please visit sealingtech.com.