Is China Diverting High Technology to US Foes? Congress Moves to Tighten Restrictions on Sale of Supercomputers to Beijing for 'Civilian Use'

Article excerpt

When Sun Microsystems Inc. sold one of its supercomputers to a Hong Kong firm, they were told that it was going to a scientific institute near Beijing.

When United States officials finally traced it, the computer was at a military research facility 800 miles from the Chinese capital.

The case, reported by the Commerce Department last week, is only the latest in a string of alleged improper diversions of US high-technology to Chinese and Russian defense facilities. It underscores a growing concern among some US officials and defense experts that since President Clinton began easing export controls in his first term, China and Russia have begun covertly using US technologies to develop military hardware - including nuclear weapons - that could threaten US security. Privately, some US officials say they believe American technology sold for civilian purposes, but has military applications, is being resold to US foes, including Iran. "China has become the single most important source of technology that rogue countries cannot obtain from the West," asserts one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Russia is fast becoming the second." China and Russia deny such contentions, and the Clinton administration insists these incidents are isolated, adding that the most sensitive US know-how is not falling into the hands of potential military rivals. Still, the administration has raised the cases with China and Russia, and a federal grand jury is now probing the 1995 diversion of US-made aircraft machining equipment to a Chinese defense plant. Although the issue is being overshadowed on Capitol Hill by the Senate hearings on alleged Chinese political influence-buying, it is adding to the friction between the GOP-run Congress and Mr. Clinton over Sino-US relations. And it's fueling doubts about US policy toward Russia. Ignoring the vociferous protests of the electronics industry, the House last month passed a 1998 defense budget that would reimpose the export controls on US-made supercomputers that Clinton loosened in 1995. The Senate was expected to consider a similar measure yesterday, raising the possibility of a presidential veto. Losing market share? At the heart of the issue lies the ever-intensifying competition for lucrative markets. In the post-cold-war era, American companies successfully lobbied to lift export controls on computer hardware and software, arguing they were losing sales to foreign firms. The Clinton administration supports the shift, insisting that it can safeguard American technological dominance and national security. The most advanced know-how is withheld from export and the administration is working to prevent Iran and other US foes from obtaining sensitive technologies. …