The Magazine

Commerce Trumps Security?

The pressure is on to sell to China’s military.

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By JOSEPH A. BOSCO
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Asserting national security concerns, Republican and Democratic administrations have struggled to resist Chinese and American commercial pressures to allow military exports but have nonetheless tolerated significant erosion of the safeguards. The Congressional Research Service has reported that relaxed restrictions and waivers granted over the years have clearly “harmed U.S. national security.” Allowing the transfer of dual-use technology, ostensibly for disaster relief or other nonmilitary missions, further enhances the capabilities of the Chinese military, which is committed to the incorporation of Taiwan, by force if necessary. Americans called upon to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack would be facing weapons built or enhanced by American technology. Japan, our most important Asian ally, fears that sophisticated U.S. weaponry will tilt the balance of power in Asia in China’s favor in a conflict with Japan.

Beijing is now making an all-out push to eliminate the arms prohibitions and has presented Washington with a long list of weapons systems and dual-use technology it wishes to acquire. With the support of important American business sectors, the efforts have begun to bear fruit. The Obama administration has launched a broad relaxation of export controls under the president’s Export Control Reform Initiative. In 2010, the administration lifted export restrictions relating to C-130 cargo aircraft ostensibly to be used in maritime oil spill response operations.

In 2011, U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke announced that the administration planned to loosen export controls on nearly one-third of the 141 high-technology items sought by China. This was despite the ambassador’s having noted that China’s human rights record has deteriorated over the past few years and “is getting worse.” Later, the administration granted a high-technology arms export license to a China-linked satellite company in Hong Kong. 

In addition to demanding the right to acquire U.S. weapons and technology, Beijing urged the U.S. government to reorganize itself and transfer export licensing decisions from the relatively strict State Department to the Commerce Department, whose primary mission is to promote American business and exports. In June, a presidential executive order did exactly that, moving the licensing authority for a range of defense-related articles from State to Commerce.

China has quickly exploited the change, sending Commerce an expanded list of weapons and technology requests in preparation for the coming trade talks. The requests are under review amid a full-court press for approval by the Chinese government and U.S. business interests.

It has long been clear that commercial considerations trump human rights in the U.S.-China relationship. As Hillary Clinton said on her first visit to China as secretary of state, humanitarian concerns “can’t interfere” with business-as-usual on the larger China-U.S. agenda. Now the danger is that commerce trumps not only human rights but national security as well. China seems determined to vindicate Lenin’s observation that “capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.” Meanwhile, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, warned the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2011 that China’s conventional and strategic forces pose a “mortal threat” to the United States. Committee chair Dianne Feinstein reprimanded the director for his bluntness.

Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest. He served as China
country desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-06.

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