WASHINGTON — When Russian forces invaded Ukraine nearly five months ago, the Biden administration led dozens of governments in banning the export of advanced technology to Russia to hobble its economic and military development.
Now, the U.S. government is using the lessons it learned from those actions to expand restrictions on exports to China and other countries in cases where companies or groups might threaten U.S. national security or violate human rights, current and former American officials say. President Biden and his aides call China the greatest long-term rival of the United States, surpassing Russia.
The effort involves broadening the circumstances under which so-called export controls would be imposed and getting partner nations on board. It also aims to redefine what technologies are considered sensitive or critical and of potential use to militaries and security agencies — to encompass things like artificial intelligence, for example.
In trying to develop a strategy on China, U.S. officials are not just looking at traditional military uses of technologies, but they are also considering the roles of Chinese companies in creating a surveillance state or building a security infrastructure and using forced labor camps to repress ethnic minorities in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.
“As China has become more aggressive, more belligerent, more active in its tech sector, the importance of managing the relationship with China through export controls has risen,” Alan F. Estevez, head of the Bureau of Industry and Security, the unit in the Commerce Department that oversees export controls, said last month at an event organized by the Center for a New American Security.
“We need to ensure that the U.S. retains technological overmatch,” he said. “In other words, China cannot build capabilities that they will then use against us, or against their neighbors for that matter, in any kind of conflict.”
American officials say the use of export controls on Russia is perhaps the greatest success so far in the sweeping campaign of economic punishment against President Vladimir V. Putin and his military. The United States and its partners have imposed broad restrictions on sending semiconductors, aircraft parts, equipment for the oil and gas industry and other goods to Russia, in an effort to cripple Russia’s military and its strategic industries.
With China, efforts have been more targeted. The officials say their goal is not to weaken the broader Chinese economy, but rather to limit China’s access to technologies that would contribute to its military and scientific advancement. That in itself could help prevent armed conflict, U.S. officials say.
“My goal is to stop China from being able to use that technology to advance their military, modernize their military,” Mr. Estevez, also a former Pentagon official, told reporters last week at a Commerce Department policy conference in Washington, referring to advanced semiconductor chips, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
But China is the world’s second-largest economy, and any trade restrictions against it would carry much greater risks than those imposed on Russia. American executives warn that broad export controls could be deeply disruptive to global commerce and also provoke China to issue its own restrictions on some of the crucial products it supplies to the United States and other countries, including certain minerals.
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And widespread use of the controls could erode American technological leadership and market dominance over the long term by encouraging foreign customers to find other sources of supply.
But Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, declared at the policy conference that export controls “are at the red-hot center of how we best protect our democracies.”
She underscored the impact of controls on Russia, saying that global semiconductor exports to the country had declined by 90 percent, and that its fleet of commercial aircraft could be decimated soon. “We also know that another autocratic regime — China — is watching our response closely,” she added.
The Biden administration on Tuesday put five Chinese companies on an export blacklist for continuing to support Russia’s military-industrial sector. It was the first time the U.S. government had taken action against Chinese companies for aiding Russia since the war in Ukraine began in February, though American officials say the Chinese government and most companies appear to be complying with the U.S.-led sanctions.
Even before those actions, the Biden administration had doubled down on a Trump administration policy of wielding export controls as a cudgel against Chinese companies.
In 2018, Congress passed a law requiring the Commerce Department to expand its controls on sensitive American technologies that flow abroad.
Though some lawmakers say the government has moved too slowly on this, the department under both the Trump administration and the Biden administration has aggressively wielded a more targeted tool, called the entity list, which cuts foreign companies and organizations off from U.S. technology unless their American suppliers obtain a license to sell goods to them.
The Trump administration put Huawei and SMIC, two prominent Chinese technology companies, on that list.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Commerce Department under Mr. Biden was adding China-based companies and organizations to the list at a much faster rate than ones from any other country. Of 475 foreign entities added since January 2021, 107 are based in China, according to a new tally of data that the agency provided to The New York Times. By contrast, the administration put 23 Russia-based entities on the list before the war — then quickly added 252, in addition to imposing broader restrictions on entire categories of technology goods.
The administration has also blacklisted companies based in Pakistan, Belarus, Myanmar, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Britain, but those numbers are much smaller.
Most of the China-based entities listed during the Biden administration were judged by U.S. officials to have military roles or to be involved in systemic human rights abuses. Some have suspicious ties with Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, countries with nuclear programs that the United States is trying to constrain, U.S. officials say. A few are linked to aggressive actions in disputed territory in the South China Sea.
The United States has also extended the reach of its export restrictions well beyond U.S. borders. It has forbidden companies anywhere in the world from exporting certain items if they are made with American technology to some listed entities, including Russian military groups and Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company. The United States can also restrict exports to listed entities of foreign goods that contain certain amounts of American products.
“One of the lessons from the use of that tool with Huawei is that it can be a pretty powerful mechanism,” said Samm Sacks, a researcher on technology policy at Yale Law School and New America. “It captures a lot of third-country suppliers.”
Some American lawmakers say further technology restrictions would be a potent tool to wield against Beijing, and that threats to broaden those controls might help deter potential hostilities by Chinese leaders toward Taiwan. But some analysts warn of possible retaliation from China.
“As the United States continues to exploit the extraterritorial reach of its regulations, the growing threat of a regulatory ‘arms race,’ particularly with China, adds to an already jittery business environment,” Jeanette Chu, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in March.
“The ‘tit for tat’ nature of export controls and sanctions today risks undermining the effectiveness of export controls and leaving policymakers with limited options,” she added.
Although the Chinese government denounces Washington’s use of sanctions, it has increasingly used its own form of economic punishments to harm countries that take stands contravening Beijing’s political views. Recent targets include Australia, Japan, South Korea and Norway. When Lithuania permitted Taiwan last year to open a representative office in its capital, China cut off its exports to Lithuania as well as imports.
In June 2021, Beijing enacted the “Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law,” aimed at punishing companies and individuals that comply with foreign sanctions against China. And the Chinese government has an export control law that it could use broadly.
China remains behind the United States in many technological fields but is catching up quickly. In some areas — biotechnology, artificial intelligence and 5G communications, for instance — China is at or near the fore. And it is set to overtake the United States in national spending on research and development within the next several years.
“Scientific and technological innovation has become the main battlefield of the international strategy contest, and the competition around the commanding heights of science and technology is unprecedentedly fierce,” President Xi Jinping of China said in a speech in May 2021.
Biden administration officials say the export controls imposed on Russia show that the strength of American actions comes from coordination with partner nations.
At Mr. Biden’s democracy summit in December 2021, the United States, Australia, Denmark and Norway announced they would begin building a new export control policy program to limit technologies going to authoritarian governments engaged in human rights abuses. The United States has been carrying out other discussions in its trade and technology dialogue with the European Union.
The most prominent global export regime now, the Wassenaar Arrangement, is intended to control sales of technology that can be used for military as well as commercial purposes, but critics say it has drawbacks, including that Russia is a member.
Any new multilateral system for export controls must be done with partners so that many countries impose the same limits, Mr. Estevez said last month. “As anyone knows, if you dam half the river, the water is still flowing,” he added.
But Martin Chorzempa, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, warned that many nations that have deep trade ties with China could resist efforts to impose broad export controls on the country.
“I don’t think you’d see the level of unanimity that the sanctions on Russia would have, so that would risk splitting the coalition,” he said.
And the potential for further restrictions on China is already causing some concern among American business executives.
Myron Brilliant, executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the business community had been “steadfast in its support of the multilateral use of sanctions against Russia given that country’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine,” but that views on China were “more complex and nuanced.”
“The business community has deep concerns with China’s predatory and market distortion policies, yet we must also recognize that the two largest economies are very integrated,” he said. “So the impact of broad decoupling or extensive sanctioning of China would be much more destabilizing.”
Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.
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