Washington Can't Keep High Tech To Itself, So Why Try?

What do flat-panel displays, supercomputers, microprocessors, and communications satellites have in common? They are technologically sophisticated products with substantial military and commercial applications. These products provide the modern "brick and mortar" of our nation's military. For consumers, they mean such marvels of late 20th century life as wireless communications, live television broadcasts from around the world, and virtual-reality games. And for producers and workers, they provide high-wage, high-productivity jobs and rapidly growing markets at home and abroad.

But the fact that such products can be used for peaceful and bellicose purposes poses a major policy dilemma: how to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands and endangering national security. The flat-panel displays used in computer-aided design can be used for tracking tank movements. The telecommunications satellites used to broadcast the U.S. Open can be used to transmit coded military messages. Rockets used to launch satellites can be mounted with nuclear warheads.

Banning the exports of dual-use products to potential foreign adversaries might appear to be the simplest way to safeguard our national security. But this approach is both ineffective and counterproductive. The U.S. is not the only source for such products, so a unilateral ban only serves to drive global customers to competitors. Unilateral export controls, like unilateral economic sanctions, don't work. Washington should stop making foreign policy decisions in the vain hope that such measures can be effective.

INNOVATION EFFECT. Indeed, such export controls would endanger the very national security objectives they are designed to safeguard. America's military strategy rests on its superiority in high-tech weaponry, and that in turn depends on the military's access to state-of-the-art technology. For some military projects--stealth bombers, for example--this requires dedicated military suppliers producing small quantities of high-cost components in accordance with detailed military specifications. But the military also makes use of vast amounts of dual-use products, and it benefits from the lower prices and technological innovations fostered by commercial competition.

Proponents of export controls argue that when faced with a choice between commercial objectives and national security objectives, we should choose the latter. Of course. But for many products, national security hinges on the success of U.S. companies in the commercial marketplace. Unilateral export controls undermine this success and ultimately imperil national security.

This realization lies behind the gradual easing of export controls by the U.S. government since the end of the cold war. Over the past decade, the U.S. has eliminated outmoded controls on numerous dual-use products readily available on global markets, and it has tried to make procedures for approving export licenses speedier and more transparent.

RESPONSIBLE ACTIONS. Consistent with these goals, President Clinton completed efforts initiated by President Bush to transfer authority for export-control decisions over commercial satellites from the State Dept. to an inter-agency group charged with weighing both national security and commercial concerns. The new procedures reserve the right for any of the participating agencies, including the Pentagon and the State Dept., to appeal decisions it does not support. So far, these agencies have not felt the need to exercise this right.

The compelling logic behind efforts by both Republican and Democratic Administrations to modify the nation's export-control procedures should not be overlooked by Congress as it begins politically charged investigations into exports of commercial satellites to China. There is simply no evidence indicating either that campaign contributions have influenced licensing approval decisions under the new procedures or that such approvals have compromised national security.

In its discussions, Congress should not ignore the fact that China is fast becoming a great military, political, and economic power--one that is capable of either promoting or impeding American interests. China may not be our ally, but it has behaved responsibly during the past year on such critical issues as Hong Kong's peaceful transition, the ongoing negotiations over North Korea, and the Asian financial crisis. If we treat China like an enemy by eliminating its access to dual-use technologies important to its economic modernization, we will increase the likelihood that it will become an enemy--one equipped by our allies with the very technologies we seek to withhold.

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