White House Delegates Export Notification

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama has shifted authority for giving final approval to the sale of U.S. missile-related technology bound for China from the White House to the U.S. Commerce Department, according to a Sept. 29 presidential determination posted on the White House Web site.

Obama’s move pertains to a provision contained in the Strom Thurmond Defense Authorization Act of 1999 requiring the U.S. president to certify to Congress at least 15 days in advance of exporting any missile technology to China that the transfer will not harm the U.S. space launch industry or enhance China’s missile or space launch capabilities. Congress passed the law in response to allegations that China was benefiting militarily from launches of U.S.-built satellites.

Although Obama’s determination makes Commerce Secretary Gary Locke’s desk the final stop in the executive branch for exports of U.S. missile-related technology to China, an administration official said the change does not alter the current export licensing process, which engages numerous federal agencies before a request is ready for final approval. Locke, instead of Obama, will be responsible for assuring Congress an impending export does not harm U.S. interests.

“The benefit is that it shortens the timeline [for export license approval], so we’re not holding up licenses for a [presidential] signature that they are likely to get anyway,” the administration official said. Since 2007 the White House has signed off on fewer than 25 missile-related licensing requests for exports to China. Such requests usually entail  multipurpose components and materials being exported to China for non-missile related purposes.

“This isn’t satellite exports or complete commercial satellites,” the official said, referring to language in the 1999 legislation that shifted export jurisdiction over commercial communications satellites and related technologies from the Commerce Department to the State Department and its more rigorous Munitions List.

Obama’s delegation of his certification responsibility to the commerce secretary follows a series of recent export control developments.

In June, for example, the House approved language in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2010 and 2011 that would give the president authority to remove export licensing jurisdiction over U.S. commercial communications satellites from the Munitions List. However, the House legislation upholds the 1999 law limiting satellite exports to China without a presidential waiver. Although the bill garnered industry praise as the first meaningful step toward U.S. export control reform since the 1999 law was enacted, companion legislation has yet to be drafted in the Senate, congressional sources said.

In July, Locke announced his department would conduct a sweeping review of the entire U.S. export control system, which he said must adapt to changing U.S. national security needs without inhibiting the competitiveness of U.S. companies and institutions.

“I have instructed Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security to initiate a review of the entire export control system,” Locke said July 22 in remarks during a Washington International Trade Association event here. “The review will focus on improving the system by targeting our controls at those state and non-state actors who would seek to do us harm, while ensuring that the traditional control lists keep pace with technological developments.”

The announcement coincided with a push by four large commercial satellite fleet operators to persuade the U.S. government to permit wider access to U.S. and Chinese rockets.

In an Aug. 13 White House statement, the Obama administration announced it will consider reforms to the current U.S. export control regime aimed at enhancing the national security, foreign policy and economic security interests of the United States.

“The U.S. has one of the most robust export control systems in the world. But, it is rooted in the Cold War era of over 50 years ago and must be updated to address the threats we face today and the changing economic and technological landscape,” the statement read.

The August announcement was the first official sign of White House plans to advance export-control reform, a polarizing topic that pits national security hawks against the American aerospace industry, whose global market share has diminished since the 1999 crackdown on U.S. commercial communications satellite exports.