The Magazine

Out of Control?

The surprising Senate fight over high-tech sales to China

May 14, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 33 • By ELLEN BORK
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PRESIDENT BUSH SEEMS to be settling into a comfortable relationship with his party over China. His handling of the surveillance plane episode met with widespread support, and his pledge to do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan bucked up even conservatives. In late April, however, a fight broke out among senior Senate Republicans over deregulating technology exports to China. What looked like a consensus between the White House and Capitol Hill to loosen controls on the export of "dual-use" items (civilian technologies that also have military applications) ran into surprising opposition on the Senate floor.

In part, the opposition was provoked because majority leader Trent Lott jumped the gun with his sudden introduction of the bill championed by Banking Committee chairman Phil Gramm and Wyoming's Mike Enzi, his committee colleague. Their measure reauthorizing the Export Administration Act would limit the influence of security-minded officials at the Pentagon and the State Department in controlling dual-use exports. Lott's maneuver annoyed a group of senators who chair committees overseeing national security issues and who thought they had Lott's agreement to consult them before acting on the bill. The senators -- Richard Shelby, Fred Thompson, Jesse Helms, John McCain, John Warner, and Jon Kyl -- felt blindsided. "I reflected, as I approached the chamber," said Warner, chairman of the Armed Services committee, "that in my 23 years in the Senate, I don't know if I have ever opposed my leader on a motion to proceed."

The concerns, though, were more than procedural. Passage of the export bill would reflect a decision by Congress and the Bush administration, which supports the bill, to make commercial considerations paramount in regulating the export of advanced technologies, including supercomputers, encryption programs, stealth technology, and machine tools. Lott, said Kyl later, "utterly failed to appreciate the depth of concern" about the bill. After five hours of scrimmaging, the bill was pulled from the floor and action postponed until later this year.

While proponents insist they only want to free America's high technology industries from anachronistic restrictions, the bill is actually, as Thompson said on the floor of the Senate, another China trade bill. Businesses, as he put it, want to export high-tech goods to China "without having to apply for a license....That is what this is all about." But should we really be selling China the technologies it seeks for its military, the same military that has just plundered our downed reconnaissance plane for its secrets and which U.S. forces may confront one day in a conflict in the Taiwan strait?

Strange to say, but the United States has been doing just that for three decades. China has been acquiring sophisticated technologies from the United States since the earliest days of the U.S.-China relationship. Building up China's military as a counterweight to the Soviet Union was U.S. policy from Nixon forward. The flow of dual-use items even accelerated under the anti-Communist hero Ronald Reagan.

However, even as the Soviet Union disintegrated, export of dual-use equipment and technology continued. Under the Clinton administration, the National Security Council became so associated with loosening export controls that bureaucrats who monitor technology transfer nicknamed it "Commerce West."

The Clinton administration cited the end of the Cold War as a rationale for loosening America's export controls. But in fact, the disappearance of the Soviet threat ended the need for a U.S.-China strategic alliance and any ostensible reason for selling Beijing advanced dual-use technologies. It also enabled China to reorient its military toward regional goals such as retaking Taiwan and countering U.S. influence in Asia. In recent years, China has increased dramatically its defense budget and explicitly taken aim at the U.S. presence in the region.

Of course, there was always another rationale: campaign contributions, one of the biggest scandals of the Clinton years. Oddly enough, it ended up acting as a brake on technology sales. As one industry lobbyist told the National Journal, "The problem under Clinton was that he was of one party and Congress was of another, so whatever Clinton did was subject to close scrutiny by the Republicans who did not trust Clinton because of the [alleged] campaign contributions from China." Now, with a Republican in the White House, there may be less willingness among Republicans on Capitol Hill to carp about exports to China.