(Asia)(NYTimes)The Agency at the Center of America’s Tech Fight With China

July 24, 2021

Washington lawmakers, lobbyists and other parties have been vying to influence how the Bureau of Industry and Security, under the Biden administration, will approach a technology relationship with China.


WASHINGTON — As tensions between the United States and China escalate, a little-known federal agency is at the center of a debate in the Biden administration about how tough an approach to take when it comes to protecting American technology.

The Bureau of Industry and Security, a division of the Commerce Department, wields significant power given its role in determining the types of technology that companies can export and that foreign businesses can have access to.

In recent months, Washington lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested parties have been vying to influence how the agency, under the Biden administration, will approach a technology relationship with China that is both crucial for American industry and national security.

China hawks, including a collection of national security experts, congressional Republicans and progressive Democrats, say that in the past, American industry has held too much sway over the bureau. They have been pressing the administration to select a leader for the agency who will take a more aggressive approach to regulating the technology that the United States exports, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Their opponents, including some current and former Commerce Department employees, and many in industry and Washington think tanks, caution that putting a hard-liner at the helm could backfire and harm U.S. national security by starving American industry of revenue it needs to stay on the cutting edge of research and encouraging it to relocate offshore.

“It’s a very complicated relationship between the economic and national security interest,” said Lindsay Gorman, a fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund. “The fine line the Commerce Department has to walk is protecting against national security risks that may not be top of mind for the industry in the short run, without killing the golden goose.”

The bureau’s powers became clear during the Trump administration, which wielded its authority aggressively, though somewhat erratically, using the agency to curb exports of advanced technology goods like semiconductors to the telecommunications company Huawei and other Chinese businesses. It weaponized the bureau’s so-called entity list, adding hundreds of Chinese companies to a list that blocks exports of American products to companies or organizations that pose a national security threat.

But many of these regulations were enacted haphazardly and often did less to restrict Chinese access to American technology than the Trump administration intended. And at times, President Donald J. Trump offered Chinese companies concessions from these punishments to try to advance a trade deal with China, including offering a reprieve for the Chinese telecom company ZTE and licenses so companies could continue supplying goods to Huawei and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation.

The Biden administration is still carrying out a review of its China policies and has not indicated how it plans to use the bureau’s powers. Its initial engagement with China got off to an acrimonious start last week at a meeting in Anchorage, and President Biden, in his first news conference on Thursday, emphasized investing heavily in new technologies to compete with Beijing.

“The future lies in who can, in fact, own the future as it relates to technology, quantum computing, a whole range of things, including in medical fields,” Mr. Biden said


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