It has come to light that we really don’t have any serious export controls covering technology-related exports to the People’s Republic of China.
Of the US’s total $125 billion in exports to China in 2020, officials required a license for less than half a percent, Commerce Department data shows. Of that fraction, the agency approved 94%, or 2,652, applications for technology exports to China. The figures omit applications “returned without action,” meaning their outcomes were uncertain.
The result: the US continues to send to China an array of semiconductors, aerospace components, artificial-intelligence technology, and other items that could be used to advance Beijing’s military interests.
Why is this being allowed to occur?
Some warn tighter restrictions on US tech sales to China will backfire because allies such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea will step in to fill the void. For export restrictions to be effective, “we need our allies to have the same controls,” said Kevin Wolf, a senior Commerce official during the Obama administration, while testifying on Capitol Hill last year. “It is that simple and logical.”
That would be silly if it weren’t, at bottom, rankly defeatist. We shouldn’t be waiting around on putting curbs on technology transfers to an enemy nation. Instead of looking for consensus first, we need to act, to lead, to let the consensus build as we go, and to give our allies something to follow and a consensus to join. After all, if we don’t care enough to do, there’s no reason anyone else should care enough to do.
Beside that, if we stop exporting our technology to the PRC and our putative allies step in to fill the gap, at least we’ll be stopping our own transfers, and our allies’ technologies, for the most part, aren’t as good as ours. The PRC would be getting second best, continuing to trail us, and that would be to the good for our security.