U.S. Export Reform May Increase Military Exports to China


As the Obama Administration continues to loosen its arms export control policies, the United States may end up helping China modernize its military, according to a recent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report. The study titled “Western Arms Exports to China,” which looked at the export policies and practices of Germany, France, United Kingdom and the United States towards China, encourages the international community to develop a more unified approach on the export of arms and military-relevant goods to China to improve control efforts.

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China, the United States and the European Union (EU) imposed separate arms embargoes on China over human rights and security concerns. While the United States adopted policies to strictly prevent all transfers of U.S. arms and military parts to China, the EU’s more ambiguous embargo resulted in some EU countries exporting military parts and military-related goods to China, boasting its military helicopter fleet and naval capabilities.  

Recognizing China’s desire to seek western military-related goods to support its military build-up, the United States has encouraged European governments to adopt more restrictive export policies and practices towards China through bilateral and multilateral efforts. In 2007, the Commerce Department also adopted U.S. regulations prohibiting the export of certain U.S. dual-use goods (items that can be used for both military and civilian purposes) to China for military purposes, the so-called China Rule.

Despite the U.S. domestic efforts, the report highlights examples of U.S. dual-use goods used in Chinese weapons systems obtained under the guise of civilian use. In 2006, for instance, Cummins Inc. based in Indiana acknowledged that some of its turbo diesel engines legally produced under a joint venture with a Chinese company for civilian heavy-duty trucks ended up in Chinese military trucks. Some of these same truck models were also found in Sudan. The new Z-20 Chinese medium lift utility helicopter also appears to share design features with the civilian version of the U.S. Sikorsky S-70 Blackhawk helicopter, which was legally exported to China.

Instead of strengthening U.S. controls to better prevent such indirect support to China’s military, the United States is now loosening some controls on exports to China as part the Obama Administration’s Export Control Reform Initiative (ECRI). As a result of these changes, the SIPRI report states there will likely be an increase in the amount of U.S. military-related goods to China and a weakening of some U.S. efforts to convince Europeans to be more restrictive.  

According to an analyst from the SIPRI study, the ECRI was a result of the ascendancy of the ‘Run Faster’ coalition over the ‘Control Hawks’ group within the U.S. export control policy community. While the ‘Control Hawks’ advocate for strict export control over U.S. military and dual-use goods to China, fearing such exports may hamper U.S. national security interests, the ‘Run Faster’ coalition pushes for an export control system that controls only the most sensitive arms and goods to China.

A central component of the ongoing Export Control Reform Initiative has been the regrouping of tens of thousands of arms and military items from the State Department’s more strictly controlled U.S. Munitions List (USML) to the Commerce Department’s more loosely controlled Commerce Control List (CCL). According to the administration, these ongoing regulatory changes will allow the U.S. government to better control sensitive military items and reduce some burden on the U.S. defense industry for the less sensitive items.

Although the administration has taken steps to require U.S. government review of most of the arms and military items moving to the CCL for export to China, CCL controls are not as strong as those on the USML. Based on a review of U.S. regulations by this author, for instance, the CCL Control Policy states that there is a general policy of approval for companies seeking to export certain military items on the CCL to China intended for civilian-end uses, but not for military-end-uses. This civilian-end use exception does not apply to items on the USML and could continue to be used acquire U.S. military items to support its military modernization.

In connection with ECRI, the U.S. government is also transferring many items formerly considered "specially designed" for military purposes or otherwise formerly deemed important to control off both the State Department and Commerce Department control lists. Once off both of these control lists, companies are now able to export or provide these items, such as nuts and bolts for military vehicles or potentially larger items for military aircraft, to China without U.S. government review.

As China continues to seek Western equipment and technology to address problems it has in developing “naval propulsion, aircraft engines and new materials,” and the United States remains concerned about China’s military actions in the Pacific region, the SIPRI report encourage countries to communicate more about the goals of their embargoes and be more transparent about exports to China. Although it’s too early to tell exactly how U.S. export reforms may effect U.S. exports to China or U.S. diplomatic pressure on European countries, it is clear that ECRI has raised EU concerns about a potential U.S. double standard.

Colby Goodman is the Senior Research Associate of the Security Assistance Monitor and covers a range of U.S. foreign security assistance issues around the world.