Commentary: High Tech Exports: Simple Steps Will Protect The U.S.

To hear Republicans tell it, the Clinton Administration has virtually committed treason by opening the floodgates to high-tech exports. And their rhetoric has only hardened as allegations pile up about how China set out to influence sales of high-tech gear through illegal campaign contributions and obtained rocket-launch knowhow via adiministration-sanctioned satellite sales.

As always, the truth is more complicated. But before the truth emerges, U.S. export policy will likely be set on a new, restrictive course. Under congressional pressure, the State Dept. must tell lawmakers by Jan. 1 how it will tighten rules for commercial satellite exports. And regardless of what is said, industry sources predict that soon after, a House panel probing technology transfers to China will call for even stricter rules--both on satellites and computers--to ensure that technology with military potential doesn't fall into the wrong hands. "We've become a whipping boy," fumes Edward J. Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Assn.

LITTLE BENEFIT. The danger is that the pendulum may be swinging too far, jeopardizing much more than the current $30 billion a year in sales that are categorized as munitions or dual-use equipment. Overly restrictive export policy could hobble America's most dynamic industries, with little benefit to national defense.

Instead of the sea change in policy that Congress wants, a few simple fixes could add up to a sensible export regime. First, government rules must be technologically current. At the Commerce Dept., which handles licensing for exports of computer hardware and machine tools, licenses are still required for sales of computers that perform as few as 2,000 MTOPS (millions of theoretical operations per second). That covers such basic gear as servers used for E-mail systems.

QUICKER ACTION. Next, export applications should be handled more quickly. Since it is likely that Congress will expand the State Dept.'s oversight, State must operate with deadlines similar to, though probably slightly longer than, Commerce's 90-day limit. At State, which Congress recently gave authority over satellite sales, reviews can take more than a year. That lets foreign competitors wrest business from U.S. companies. "They can build satellites faster than we can get licenses," gripes John W. Douglas, president of Aerospace Industries Assn. State also should issue blanket approvals for sales of certain goods to specified countries when justified. Why, for instance, should direct broadcast satellites destined for Germany get stuck in the bottleneck?

Finally, China-phobia must not dictate policy. Congress should mull separate rules for China. This would insulate the broader discussion over export controls from the charged debate over China.

Partisanship makes finding a balance between national security and commercial needs difficult. Export controls have become another weapon in congressional attacks on the President. But to let such sniping hamper creation of rational export controls threatens corporate prosperity and the nation's security.