US-China Commission Wants Review of Export Restrictions

US-China Commission Wants Review of Export Restrictions

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) recommends in its most recent report, released today, that the U.S. government review items on the State Department’s Munitions List and the Department of Commerce’s Commerce Control List (CCL) to determine which items China could obtain on the open market regardless of U.S. restrictions and which continue to require U.S. protection.

The USCC was created by Congress in the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to review the national security implications of trade and economic ties between the United States and China.   It is currently chaired by Willilam Reinsch, President of the National Foreign Trade Council and former Under Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration (later named the Bureau of Industry and Security).   Its comprehensive annual report to Congress is among the many reports it produces.

The 631-page report for 2015 presents a summary and analysis of China’s space program based on testimony to the Commission by experts and its own research.   On February 18, the Commission took testimony from nine experts on China’s space program, including Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College, Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, and Kevin Pollpeter of the University of California-San Diego.

Today’s report repeats familiar themes about China’s growing capabilities across the broad spectrum of space activities to further its national security, economic and political objectives.  These include direct ascent and co-orbital antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities that threaten U.S. satellites up to geosynchronous orbit, the report says.  “China has become one of the top space powers in the world” and even though its “space capabilities still generally lag behind those of the United States and Russia, its space program is expanding and accelerating rapidly as many other nations’ programs proceed with dwindling resources and limited goals.”

One of China’s goals is to capture 15 percent of the global launch market and it did so in 2011 and 2012, but not in 2013, the last year for which data is available, the report says.  It also wants to export commercial satellites to developing countries, which contributes to demand for use of China’s launch services. 

However, citing testimony to the Commission by Tate Nurkin of IHS Jane’s Aerospace, and comments by former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright (Ret.) at a May 2015 Center for Strategic and International Studies event, the Commission writes that U.S. export restrictions under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) “are not currently in line with the pace of technological innovation and are therefore in need of reform in order to protect the U.S. space industry’s global competitiveness.”  Europe’s development of “ITAR-free” satellites is an example of the challenges to U.S. industry posed by the export restrictions, it says.

Against that backdrop, the Commission recommends that: “Congress direct appropriate jurisdictional entities to undertake a review of (1) the classification of satellites and related articles on the U.S. Munitions List under the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations and (2) the prohibitions on exports of Commerce Control List satellites and related technologies to China under the Export Administration Regulations, in order to determine which systems and technologies China is likely to be able to obtain on the open market regardless of U.S. restrictions and which are critical technologies that merit continued U.S. protection.”  

Congress and the Obama Administration have modified export regulations for space products in recent years, but exports to China and certain other countries were excluded.

The report goes on to warn that China may attain greater prestige in human spaceflight because it plans a new space station for launch in 2022, while the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for “deorbiting” in 2024.   

ISS is not, in fact, scheduled to be deorbited in 2024.   The U.S. is committed to operate the ISS until 2024, and Russia and Canada have agreed (Japan and the European Space Agency still have not formally done so), but NASA human spaceflight officials have made clear they hope to keep it operating at least until 2028, the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first modules.

Nevertheless, the Commission sees the possibility of China having “the only space station in orbit” as giving it “a diplomatic tool” that it can “leverage to execute its broader foreign policy goals.  Furthermore, given current Congressional restrictions on U.S.-China space cooperation, the United States would not participate in China’s space station program barring changes to annual appropriations legislation. For the first time in decades, the United States could be without a constant human presence in space.”

The Commission does not have a corresponding conclusion or recommendation, other than to say that “China’s rise as a major space power challenges decades of U.S. dominance in space….”

In addition to the export control recommendation, there are three other space-related recommendations in today’s report, that Congress —

  • continue to support DOD’s efforts to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. space assets;
  • direct DOD, the Air Force, and the Intelligence Community to perform a net assessment of China’s counterspace capabilities; and
  • allocate additional funds to the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center for the translation and analysis of Chinese-language technical and military writings to deepen U.S. understanding of China’s defense strategy, particularly related to space.

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