Trade and technology
Blacklisting deployed in the battle over tech trade
Published 11 June 2020
Blacklisting is deployed in the battle over tech trade. The US controls the export of commercial technologies to China in the name of national security. The global landscape is actively shifting as countries work to shore up and modernize their export control regimes.
National security an overriding consideration
If there is one defining feature of current US trade policy, it is that national security has become an overriding consideration in how the United States engages China. It is also a focal point of US engagement with its main allied trading partners.
The Trump administration has added many tools to its arsenal in combatting what it refers to as “vectors of economic aggression” by China. Tariffs are only the most visible. The United States – and other countries – are increasingly turning to the practice of “blacklisting” persons and companies that pose a national security risk.
Through controls on exports of particular technologies, governments can either prohibit their sale to foreign entities, governments or individuals, or require the technologies be sold only upon issuance of a government license.
Not new, but expanded
Controlling the export of commercial technologies that have “dual use” or military applications is a longstanding practice. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 includes a general prohibition on quantitative restrictions on both imports and exports, but contains built-in exceptions that allow for export control regimes.
In the United States, the Export Control Act requires the Secretary of Commerce to establish and maintain a list of controlled items, foreign persons, and end-uses determined to be a threat to US national security and foreign policy for the purpose of regulating the export, reexport and in-country transfer of those technologies and to those entities.
At today’s blistering pace of tech innovation, the lines between technologies that are used commercially in the products we buy as private sector businesses and consumers are increasingly blurred with their potential applications in a military setting.
Under the 2018 Export Control Reform Act, Congress authorized the Commerce Department to review its list of controlled technologies to consider “emerging and foundational technologies” that should be added to its control list.
The technologies contemplated include a hit parade of Sci-Fi innovations such as neural networks and deep learning, swarming technology, self-assembling robots and smart dust (whatever that is), in addition to more recognizable technologies such as quantum computing, additive manufacturing and propulsion technologies.
In addition to technologies that may be controlled for export, the Commerce Department also maintains a Restricted Entity List. Entities designated are subject to a policy of presumed denial for all products, whether on the controlled technologies list or not. American companies may not export to entities on this list except through waivers and specific licenses.
Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications giant that is chasing global market share in 5G mobile technology, finds itself on the Restricted Entity List, along with all of its overseas affiliates. Other Chinese companies on the list include FiberHome Technologies Group, another 5G network equipment provider, as well as China’s leading artificial intelligence startups Megvii, SenseTime and Yitu Technologies.
The U.S. government is concerned with entities that could engage in industrial and electronic espionage and infiltrate critical U.S. military systems. But the Commerce Department also took the novel step recently of adding companies to its Restricted Entity List that furnish the Chinese state and its security bureaus with technologies used to surveil and repress civil society.
In October 2019, the United States blacklisted 28 Chinese governmental and commercial organizations, citing human rights violations and abuses in China’s campaign targeting Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The companies included Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co. and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co. which are two of the world’s largest producers of surveillance products as well as several of China’s leading companies in facial and voice recognition.
A Chinese finger trap
Last month, as US-China relations continued to deteriorate in very public ways, the US government added two dozen more Chinese governmental and commercial organizations to the Restricted Entity List. The Department of Commerce said they have ties to weapons of mass destruction and military activities.
As with a Chinese finger trap, American companies are now ensnared at both ends. They must comply with US export restrictions but doing so may land them on China’s newly created “Unreliable Entity List”. China created the list as a countermeasure and says it will go after American companies for causing “material damage to the legitimate interests of Chinese companies and relevant industrial sectors” and creating a potential threat to China’s national security.
More can play at that game
The global landscape is actively shifting as countries work to shore up and modernize their export control regimes.
In 2009, the European Union (EU) set up a community-wide regime for the control of exports, transfers, brokering and transit of dual-use items to ensure a common EU list of dual-use items, common criteria for assessments and authorizations throughout the EU.
Last year, Japan and Korea got into a major trade spat when the Japanese government removed South Korea from its so-called “white list” of preferred trading partners for strategic technologies, subjecting some Japanese exports to South Korea to new screening.
Japan’s placement of three chemicals used to make computer chips on the control list resulted in delayed shipments that affected the entire global semiconductor industry since South Korean companies account for nearly two-thirds of the world’s memory chips. South Korea retaliated by dropping Japan from its white list.
One good turn deserves another
For its part, China deemed its own “Unreliable Entity List” to be unreliable. In January this year (on the same date the US-China Phase One deal was signed in Washington) the National People’s Congress in Beijing published a draft of China’s first comprehensive national Export Control Law, providing China with increased leverage to apply and counteract US export control measures. Safe to say we’ll be reading a lot more about blacklisting in the coming years.
An interesting report to dive deeper:
2018 Report on Foreign Policy-Based Export Controls, U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security