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China: Tough Export Measures Against China Dropped

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 15 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress has quietly dropped a series of tough measures against China for its alleged nuclear spying, but it will retain the option open of punishing both China and Russia over the next six months if either country poses a threat.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to water down a package of proposals that were offered by Congressman Christopher Cox, the California Republican who led an investigation of the China spy scandal last year. The Cox legislation was designed to clamp down on U.S. technology exports as a safeguard against any further security leaks.

But representatives of the American computer industry worked to convince congressional leaders that the moves would do more harm than good. U.S. national security depends just as much on strong exports as on keeping technology out of the wrong hands, they argued.

In the end, Congressman Cox agreed. The toughest recommendations of his committee were rewritten last week to avoid any new bans on exports of technology.

The outcome is critical because Washington is in the midst of deciding how much of its technology should be sold or shared with its adversaries. The decisions on U.S. export controls could affect relations with China and Russia, as well as their modernization, for years to come.

Several proposals of the Cox committee suggested a return to some of the export controls that characterized the Cold War. The committee demanded, for example, that U.S. officials be given the right to conduct surprise inspections of high-performance computers after they are sold to China, to ensure that they are not used for military purposes.

China would have seen such a demand as an infringement on its sovereignty. But the legislation threatened to bar computer exports if China refused. In the end, the legislation was modified to call only for negotiations on inspections.

But the legislation still requires President Bill Clinton to submit a report to Congress on any Chinese violations of missile agreements and any Russian transfers of missile technology to China. The call for the report, which is due by Oct. 31, suggests that Russia may be punished if China's missiles prove to be a threat. But for the time being, Congress has decided to be careful about harming U.S. exports and economic interests.

The issues of export controls and penalties may hang in the balance for the next six months because of a separate law that Congress passed nearly two years ago. It requires that any new plans to export computers with higher speeds be delayed for six months, giving Congress a chance to block such a move.

As U.S. technology creates ever-faster computers, the industry views the right to export them as vital to its profits and health. Even officials like Congressman Cox agree that exports of faster computers should be permitted to countries including China and Russia, despite concerns that they could be used to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. The industry is seeking a sixfold increase in the allowed speed for computer exports.

But reports suggest that President Clinton will not propose any further easing for Russia and China. The Los Angeles Times said last week that officials plan to ask only that controls be lifted for about 100 other countries that are not seen as military risks. The administration's fear seems to be that it will be blamed for trying to reduce restrictions on Russia and China if another security scandal emerges during the next six months.

Last week, U.S. computer executives tried to convince administration officials at a White House meeting to take bolder steps. The officials promised only that their export proposal would be ready by June 30, an industry source said.

But tensions with Russia over its role in Kosovo cannot possibly help the case of those who are seeking more liberal export controls. U.S. officials including Vice President Al Gore have been trying to defend the long-term relationship with Russia throughout the crisis. But the Kremlin's unpredictable behavior could make that stand a liability.

Any attempt to relax limits on sales of sensitive items will require trust, which may be in short supply for both Russia and China. The decision will be even more difficult if Russia is seen as obstructionist in Kosovo.

The perception that Russia has reneged on agreements will also undercut arguments for cooperation on exports and security, especially in a case where Congress can cancel a new export break if U.S. trade partners prove untrustworthy.