Among the hundreds of documents that crossed the desk of George W. Bush in his final year as president were three pro forma letters assuring Congress that several impending missile-related technology sales to China would not harm the U.S. space launch industry and would not measurably improve the People’s Republic’s satellite-launching or missile capabilities.
The specific hardware exports warranting the president’s personal signoff included four industrial-grade grinding mills destined for Chinese-run pharmaceutical, textile and semiconductor factories; a few dozen accelerometers to be used in railway safety equipment; and something called a “spare center beam” that needed to be sent back to China for “repair/replacement” to ensure the continuous operation of a cargo inspection system in the United States.
Then-President Bush was not the first U.S. commander in chief to pull double duty as export shipping clerk, but he could be the last.
In late September, President Barack Obama quietly delegated his responsibility for signing off on such exports to his secretary of commerce, Gary Locke.
President Obama’s Sept. 29 “presidential determination” memorandum was denounced by proliferation hawks as a dangerous loosening of the export controls Congress put in place in 1998 in response to overblown allegations that China was benefiting militarily from launches of U.S.-built commercial satellites.
Section 1512 of the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act for 1999 requires the president to give Congress at least 15 days advance notice of any missile-related technology export to China and to certify that the sale poses no threat to U.S. national security or the health and well being of America’s space launch industry. The same bill, signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, also shifted export jurisdiction for all communications satellites and related hardware from the Commerce Department’s Commerce Control List to the State Department’s more restrictive Munitions List.
Critics of Obama’s unilateral move worry that the Commerce Department, with its mission to promote trade, will put U.S. corporate interest in selling high-tech goods to the world’s third largest economy ahead of national security concerns.
Obama administration officials counter that making the commerce secretary’s desk the last stop for the export of dual-use technology determined to offer no material advantage to Chinese missile programs does nothing to weaken an export-licensing process that by its very design tends to err well on the side of caution.
Export license applications for missile-related technologies will continue to begin the long and sometimes arduous road to approval at the State Department, which makes national security and foreign policy considerations paramount in its reviews. The same goes for satellites and satellite components, regardless of their availability from non-U.S. suppliers.
Obama administration officials hope that eliminating the need to get the president’s signature will shorten the downhill leg of the journey while sending a signal that this White House takes seriously the calls for overhauling an export control regime that a growing chorus of defense experts believes is actually eroding U.S. technological superiority. U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), who chairs the House Intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence, noted in a recent speech that U.S. companies are often barred from exporting technologies that non-U.S. companies can freely sell on the international market, and that the U.S. share of the commercial space market has dropped from 70 percent 20 years ago to 27 percent today.
Only time will tell whether President Obama’s handoff of congressional notification duties to Mr. Locke will help build momentum for more meaningful export reform. But judging from some of the reactions to this fairly innocuous move, politics and ideology continue to trump common sense in the minds of many when it comes to this particular issue, which means any change for the better will require the expenditure of far more political capital than should be necessary.