Boston, 31 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress is trying to increase the Defense Department's role in controlling sensitive exports to countries outside NATO following a report on China's alleged nuclear spying.
Trade experts in Washington have been worried for months that the China spy allegations would lead to curbs on technology sold to all non-NATO countries, including Russia. Last week, their fears were realized when U.S. House members filed a series of amendments to give the Defense Department a stronger hand in deciding what exports will be allowed.
The House recessed amid arguments over ground troops for Kosovo, but the measures to limit exports are expected to be taken up again in the coming week when lawmakers return to pass their annual defense spending bill.
The most sweeping amendment is by Republican Congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, a member of the special committee that investigated the nuclear spying charges. Under the measure, the Defense Department would be given the power to block sensitive exports at the most basic level.
While the military already has a right to object to any licensed export, the legislation would go further by requiring the Pentagon to review the classifications of any new product that might be exported. Reviews would take place even before a license decision is made by the U.S. Commerce Department.
The result is that any item could be effectively denied to foreign countries, if U.S. military and intelligence agencies believe it could contribute to programs for weapons of mass destruction.
Until now, such decisions have been made by the Commerce Department, which tries to promote trade. But the agency has been under fire since the series of Chinese spying allegations began with concerns about U.S. satellite exports and missile technology. Under the legislation, the president of the United States would make the final decision if the Defense and Commerce Departments disagree on future exports.
U.S. computer manufacturers and industry groups have geared up to fight the new controls, according to Washington sources. But most experts believe it is only a matter of time before tougher export restrictions are imposed against countries that are not close U.S. allies. The result is likely to be a greater gap in development between those that have easy access to U.S. technology and those that do not.
The latest move is part of a trend toward new security restrictions that began shortly after Russian signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons in September 1996.
At the time, Viktor Mikhailov, who was then Russia's Minister of Atomic Energy, reportedly assured colleagues that they would gain access to U.S. supercomputers for simulated nuclear tests if the treaty was signed.
U.S. officials later insisted that they had never promised to allow supercomputer sales to Russia for simulated nuclear tests. But months later, Mikhailov boasted that he had obtained U.S. supercomputers, anyway, for use at research centers in the nuclear cities of Chelyabinsk-70 and Arzamas-16.
The U.S. Congress reacted by placing new limits on computer exports in October 1997, using the same tactic of amending the annual defense bill, as with the amendments now. The incident represented the first tightening of U.S. export policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Prior to the supercomputer episode, the United States had steadily relaxed its export restrictions since 1991 after decades of tough limits set through the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, known as Cocom. The trend continued after Cocom was disbanded in 1994.Telecommunications and other technology gradually flowed into Russia and the former East bloc.
But the controversy in Congress over computers and their nuclear uses reversed the trend of liberalization. Efforts by the administration of President Bill Clinton to allow greater trade in technology have not recovered since.
It has also proved easier to impose new sanctions than to complete old initiatives. For example, the United States still keeps the new NATO members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in the same category with Russia for U.S. computer exports, although officials say they are working to change the rules.
In 1997, the investigation of Russia's use of supercomputers led to similar concerns about China. In the current spy case, the effects may be reversed. The congressional legislation was sparked by fears of China, but it is likely to affect all technology exports to some 50 countries that the United States classifies as potential nuclear risks.
The trend toward restrictions could have a significant impact on the role of the United States as the world's greatest source of technology and the efforts of developing economies to modernize. Although the pace of new technology will continue to accelerate, the question is whether security fears will cause the United States to stop sharing it with the rest of the world.