Useless Export Controls Fail to Stop China from Acquiring Sensitive Emerging Technologies

By Steve Coonen

“If you want it, here it is, come and get it,” sang the British band Badfinger in their 1969 song “Come and Get It.” That tune, written by Paul McCartney, might as well be the theme song for the U.S. Government’s inability to protect emerging or foundational technologies, including semiconductor technologies, from the Chinese military.

Emerging and foundational technologies assist in providing the underlying knowledge and capabilities required for Chairman Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to dominate and control key technological economic sectors and further modernize their military. Indeed, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute stated that China has a “stunning lead” in research into 37 out of 44 critical technologies, including those with clear military uses such as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, autonomous systems, and advanced aircraft engines (including hypersonics). U.S. research and emerging technology has invariably played a very important role in China’s technological prowess. For example, the Washington Post’s investigative reporting revealed that the PRC’s lead in hypersonics was gained largely through U.S. software and highlights the utter failure of U.S. export controls designed to restrict China’s access to those technologies.

One would think the federal government would move quickly to stop the Chinese government from accessing the high-tech tools that will be the backbones of future weapons systems. But emerging technologies do not fit neatly within the confines of the Department of Commerce’s Commodity Control List (CCL). U.S. Export Control Officials, with their penchant for advancing U.S. commercial interests over those of national security, leave too many technologies uncontrolled with no license requirements. As such, the vast majority of emerging technology is classified as EAR99 (unlicensed or low-level technology), and is thus largely uncontrolled. 

This defective approach has allowed some of the United States’ most high-powered semiconductors to be transferred to the PRC without a license. In a 2022 report on PLA acquisitions, CSET discovered that most of the AI chip purchases being adopted for combat and combat support functions were GPUs legal for export under EAR99. While the U.S. government did implement new rules targeting China’s advanced semiconductor industry last fall, NVIDIA has reconfigured its chipsets to evade the new and very narrowly focused controls. This narrow focus also enabled the threat of a rising Chinese legacy chip sector led by SMIC, a Chinese company with direct links to the Chinese military, and one that is thriving despite its Entity Listing.

The fact that American technologies are providing the CCP with the very technological capabilities needed to dominate the globe economically and militarily clearly points to the utter brokenness of U.S. export controls. As my colleague Nazak Nikakhtar pointed out to the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on May 11th, 2023, “The fact that licensing requirements for the nation’s most sensitive and dangerous technologies are no different than current license requirements for innocuous items such as tables and chairs is absurd. This needs to change.”  

This calamity suggests an urgent need for Congress to lead a wholesale change to export control policies as they relate to China. A presumption of denial policy for all emerging technologies bound for China, along the lines of a bill which Sens. Marco Rubio and Roger Wicker have proposed, is in order. Additionally, Congress should rewrite the country specific policies for how the interagency adds emerging and foundational technologies to the CCL. For the pariah states of China, Russia, and potentially others, the Department whose equities are most impacted by certain technologies should have the greatest voice in determining what is controlled and how it is controlled. BIS should no longer be the dominant agency given their history of failure to control America’s most sensitive technologies at a great cost to U.S. national security.

The broken process for adding emerging and foundational technologies to the CCL must be fixed. Currently, there are emerging and foundational technologies and capabilities that engineers at the Department of Defense believe should be controlled but are not:

  • Advanced Materials: Advanced materials such as nanomaterials, certain epoxies and composites, and semiconductor materials are mostly EAR99 because of the difficulty in developing a control with any specificity that would be definable by current CCL standards. 
  • Additive Manufacturing Equipment
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technologies
  • Quantum Computing Components
  • Biotechnologies
  • Autonomous Vehicles and Related Controls and Software

Why has it been so hard to get these items—which have clear military applications—blacklisted from being exported to China?

It is remarkable, but not surprising, that BIS has managed to hold off nearly any controls on emerging and foundational technologies despite Congress requesting such controls over five

years ago. The alleged inability to define the technology is generally the convenient excuse offered. Meanwhile, Beijing laughs at this willful blindness that is slowly positioning the Chinese military to surpass the United States’ armed forces.

Be sure to visit the CTT Willful Blindness page for more information!