A panel commissioned by the U.S. Congress to monitor national security implications of trade between the United States and China is questioning U.S. export control policy toward Beijing.
Members of the panel expressed their concerns at a hearing Friday on Capitol Hill.
Members of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission are concerned that the Bush administration, in its desire to boost trade with the world's most populous nation, could be turning a blind eye to - ignoring - national security concerns when it approves exports to China of dual-use technology - items with both military and civilian applications.
Former Senator Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican and commission member, took aim at the Export Administration Act, which establishes guidelines for the export of such technology.
Mr. Thompson said, "The last iteration version I saw of it still gives more and more power to commerce at a time when national security aspect of things and defense aspect of things I think are becoming more and more important."
Commission members said the issue is particularly important given China's rapid military build-up and heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
But Beth McCormick, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for technology security policy, defended administration policy, saying national security considerations are weighed heavily.
She said her agency has received about one-thousand dual-use export license applications from China annually for the past four years, and of those about 70 percent have been approved.
The remainder were denied or returned without action. McCormick says most of the applications have been for chemical manufacturing equipment, toxic gas monitoring systems, equipment used in handling biological materials and technology and electronic and semiconductor equipment.
She says her agency has approved only a few of the more sensitive munitions export license applications for China in the last two years:
Mr. McCormick said, "The approvals include an explosive ordnance disposal containment vessel for Chinese security training in preparation for the Beijing Summer Olympics, an inertial reference system for use in railway track curvature measurements, and several commercial satellite licenses."
Commission chairman Larry Wortzel questioned why the administration approved technology to support China's railway, which he says will play a key role in the country's military modernization.
Mr. Wortzel said, "As China moves to mobile, strategic intercontinental ballistic missile systems that can put warheads aimed on the United States, it is going to transport a lot of that stuff by rail.
As China increases that military buildup against Taiwan and threatens Taiwan with shorter-range missiles by the second artillery, the principle way that the second artillery moves those missiles from plants to storage and moves its conventional and nuclear warheads is by rail."
Another U.S. official said his agency is working to tighten controls on dual-use technology exports to China. Darryl Jackson is assistant secretary of commerce for export enforcement in the Bureau of Industry and Security, or B.I.S.
Mr. Jackson said, "B.I.S. is currently working with its interagency partners on a new regulation that would require a license to export otherwise uncontrolled items to China when the exporter knows at the time that the export will be destined for military use in China. The regulation will be designed to control exports that can make a significant contribution to China's military modernization in a way that will minimize the compliance burden on U.S. industry."
Jackson says his bureau has investigated a number of export control violations involving dual-use items to China. He says such probes led to 14 criminal convictions last year.
Jackson says agency personnel visit China regularly to determine whether licensed items are actually being used as authorized, a process known as post-shipment verification. But panel member Thompson sounded skeptical:
Mr. Thompson said, "The post-shipment verification process is pretty much of a sham. We really do not have any effective way of knowing what happens to these goods once they get there."
Thompson suggests that Washington ban munitions exports to China until the verification process is improved.
In the meantime, administration officials say the export control issue is expected to be on the agenda when President Bush meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington next month.