Next month’s meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade in China will feature a familiar ritual. American negotiators will face intensified pressure for Washington to lift restrictions on the sale of military and dual-use technology to China. Over time, the perennial drip-drip of Beijing’s complaints against U.S. trade discrimination in this area, bolstered by American business desires to close the trade gap, has proved effective.
Despite growing recognition that the security threat from China is real and increasing, the U.S. government is lowering its guard by facilitating the sale of technology that can enhance Chinese military capabilities—beyond what China has already stolen through conventional and cyber espionage.
China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas has raised concerns among its neighbors that its rise might not be as peaceful as Beijing has claimed. Southeast Asian countries openly describe it as aggressive. When Xi Jinping took over China’s helm from the unpopular Hu Jintao this year, many in the West expressed the cautious hope that he would begin reforming the political system and moderating China’s foreign policy.
Instead, Xi accelerated a crackdown on the media, dissidents, and the Internet. He invokes the teachings and governing style of Mao Zedong to advocate purity of Communist thought and practice. He declares as his theme of governance the “China dream” of greatness. But in a series of early visits to installations of the People’s Liberation Army, he made clear that military power is paramount in those aspirations. He urged military units to prepare for “actual combat” and has continued the provocative expansion of the Chinese presence in disputed maritime areas, creating “facts on the ground” on islands, shoals, and reefs, while repeatedly challenging Japan’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Yet the response of the West to the hardening line of this putative reformer has been to continue undoing many of the military safeguards put in place after the harsh turnaround of an earlier anticipated political reformer, Deng Xiaoping. After the traumatic decades of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Deng’s opening of China’s economy beginning in 1979 encouraged many in the West to believe that political change would not be far behind.
Those hopes were dashed in the regime’s bloody crackdown on China’s democracy movement in June 1989. The naked brutality of the onslaught of tanks and guns against peaceful students shocked the West. Suddenly the diminutive leader who donned a 10-gallon hat and charmed the American public seemed less benign, exposing the essentially unchanged nature of China’s Communist government. When democratic push came to authoritarian shove, the regime would act in ways reminiscent of the worst of Mao’s teaching—that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Moreover, a system that acted so bloodily against its own people revived concerns regarding its intentions toward its neighbors.
Tiananmen triggered a range of Western economic and political sanctions against the Chinese government. Congress prohibited the export of crime control arms that could be used against domestic dissidents as well as larger weapons systems that a more powerful Chinese military could deploy against democrats in Taiwan or Japan. The European Union imposed a parallel embargo on arms that would serve either “internal repression or external aggression.” Tiananmen had fundamentally altered the West’s perceptions of the nature of the Chinese government and the long-term prospects for a genuinely friendly relationship based on shared values. Western prudence in arming China now seemed in order.
Ever since, Beijing has conducted a relentless campaign to roll back the restrictions as impeding “normal” China-U.S. and China-EU relations and—American and European companies echo this—as costing the West business and jobs. Washington has pressed our European allies not to let up on their own sanctions, which they came close to doing in 2005. European concerns about China’s ongoing human rights depredations helped hold the line then.
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.