Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant SecretaryBureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
U.S. House of Representatives China Task Force
Good day, Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members, and thank you for inviting me. It is a pleasure to join Acting Under Secretary of Commerce Cordell Hull before you today, and to offer a perspective from the U.S. State Department on the risks and challenges with which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presents us in the technological arena. To help save time for our discussion, I will deliver an abridged version of my written remarks, but I respectfully request that the full text be entered into the record.
My bureau at the Department of State, the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, works closely with Acting Under Secretary Hull’s team at Commerce on export control matters related to the Commerce Control List (CCL), which governs the export of dual-use technologies – that is, things that have both civilian and potential military applications. Commerce administers CCL licensing and the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), but we at State are integrally involved in the process, particularly with regard to screening license applications for nonproliferation, foreign policy, and national security concerns, and to the interagency formulation of licensing policy. It is a marvelously close partnership, and in my experience a very successful relationship.
But the reason we have had to be so active in our collaboration, Mr. Chairman, is that the United States faces unprecedented challenges in this arena from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the rule of the CCP. So as a way of outlining the technology-management challenges the CCP presents for the likeminded policy community today, I would like to recount the story of how we came to focus upon these problems in the ways that we finally are in the U.S. Government today.
In my view, the U.S. policy community was lamentably slow in waking up to the degree to which the PRC’s rise to “great power” status presented at least as much by way of threats as by way of constructive opportunities. That rise was something that many prior U.S. leaders both supported and encouraged, on the naïve assumption that helping the PRC become more powerful would somehow encourage it to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the liberal world order rather than simply further empowering it as a disruptively self-aggrandizing force in the international community. If this was indeed the objective, the West’s embrace and assistance was a world-historical failure, and it is to our collective shame that it took the policy community so long to recognize this. Nevertheless, by the time we staffed up the current U.S. administration, these threats had unfortunately become all too clear.
Many of us came into office already having a painfully clear appreciation for the extent of the PRC’s strategic ambitions and the many ways in which they challenge U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. (For my part, for instance, I had been trying to draw attention to this problem for years, through a succession of articles and books on the topic.) Many of us even also had at least some understanding of the role that technology plays in the collective imagination of PRC nationalists, and in CCP propaganda that has long nourished and tried to channel that nationalism in directions favorable to the continuation of the Party’s authoritarian rule. That latter point, however, merits some explication here, because it provides the connective tissue between the CCP’s ambitions and our own technology-management challenges in dealing with an increasingly self-assertive PRC.
I. Nurtured Grievance and Strategic Ambition
In modern Chinese strategic thinking, Mr. Chairman, possession and use of cutting-edge technology has long been seen as one of the keys to geopolitical power. The Party hopes to vindicate and secure its authoritarianism by seizing for the PRC a position of global preeminence that will right the wrongs that regime propaganda describes China as having suffered at Western hands, and will thereby help restore the “rightful” order of things.
This focus upon historical grievance is both genuine, in the sense that it seems to be keenly felt by many Chinese nationalists, and artificially constructed, in the sense that it has been carefully nurtured by regime propaganda for many years. As any historian knows, China did suffer a great deal from Western imperialism. Then again, however, so did many other parts of the world that do not today carry an enormous political chip on their shoulder and are not today engaged in massive military buildups and revisionist attempts to restructure the global system around themselves.
Viewed from an Olympian height, therefore, if the Chinese people were to fashion a geopolitical agenda out of historical grievance against those who had defeated China’s armies, occupied its territory, and exercised despotic rule over the proud Chinese people who have an ancient and sophisticated culture, one might expect the modern PRC’s grievance-fueled revanchism to focus its ire upon Mongols or Manchus. One might even think that ordinary Chinese would feel more of a sense of grievance against the Chinese Communist Party itself — with its grim track record of Maoist atrocity within living memory, its massacre of students and workers on Tiananmen Square three decades ago, and its continuing and worsening police state oppressions today — than against the Western powers who pushed their “unequal treaties” upon the Qing Dynasty in the late 1800s.
To be sure, Mr. Chairman, one should not dismiss the psychic trauma of the Qing’s encounter with the dynamism of a Western world then at the height of its powers after the Industrial Revolution, for it was indeed profound. China’s encounter with Western power in the 19th Century took a political system accustomed to viewing itself as the center of the world and revealed it to be instead a decaying edifice in all but terminal economic, technological, military, and even civilizational free fall. That must indeed have been painful, and the echoes of this humiliating exposure have resonated in Chinese nationalist thinking ever since. It is important, however, to keep things in historical perspective: the subjective degree of this trauma speaks as much to the Chinese Empire’s haughty and complacent prior self-regard as it does to the magnitude of the concrete harms actually suffered.
Nevertheless, these nationalist feelings are real feelings, and the CCP has worked very hard over the years to stoke these flames, cultivating and reinforcing feelings of grievance against the West as part of its efforts to retain authoritarian power in China.
It is often said that the CCP has offered the Chinese people a Faustian bargain in which they are permitted to acquire a degree of economic prosperity in return for acquiescing to the autocratic depredations of the Party police state, but this is not the whole story. The other prong of the CCP’s non-democratic — indeed, anti-democratic — legitimacy narrative is that Party officials wish their dictatorship to be seen as uniquely able to restore China to the position of global centrality and status that its grievance-nursing regime propaganda depicts evil Westerners as having stolen from China in the 19th Century. (This is perhaps why Westerners, and the United States in particular, are the principal focus of the CCP’s grievance narrative and not, for instance, Mongols or Manchus. The PRC’s predominance over those historical conquerors of China is today assured, so if the CCP wishes to set a long-term target for revisionist ambitions that is sufficient to “justify” indefinite autocracy, it has to aim at the most powerful non-Chinese country in the modern world.)
The PRC has acted with varying degrees of boldness in pursuit of this agenda over the years. Following Deng Xiaoping’s famous exhortation to “bide our time and hide our capabilities,” the CCP regime pursued these revisionist dreams with considerable circumspection for many years. More recently, however, and with special vigor under Xi Jinping, the PRC has thrown aside that caution, engaged in a massive military buildup, proclaimed itself to be the champion of a “new model of development” in competition with Western politico-economic systems, and targets the year 2049 — the centenary of the CCP’s rise to power in China — for full achievement of the “China Dream” of “national rejuvenation.” Whether cautious or incautious in execution, however, the ambition has been there all along. Revisionism, it would seem, is a structural feature of CCP rule, for it is essential to the Party and its future that China be perceived to be en route to becoming the geopolitically central “Middle Kingdom” once again.
II. Technology and PRC Strategy
I hope you’ll forgive me all this historical exposition, Mr. Chairman, but I do think that this context is critical to understanding the role of technology acquisition in PRC strategy, and therefore also the challenges U.S. policymakers face today — both more generally in our great power competition with Beijing, and more specifically in the national security export control arena. In light of this history of PRC revisionist ambition, the key takeaway is that technology acquisition has long been seen as critical to the CCP’s success.
PRC strategic writings have emphasized since at least the mid-1980s the idea that a country’s “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP) is an aggregate of many factors, including its economic weight and dynamism, as well as what one might today call both its politico-cultural “soft power” and its traditional military “hard” power. Boosting China’s CNP has thus been in many ways a leitmotif of CCP policy for decades, for just as ancient Confucian theories imagined that political authority would all but spontaneously organize itself around the leader having superlative virtue, so PRC strategic thinking assumes that the world-system tends to organize itself around the country possessing the greatest CNP.
In the modern era, moreover, technology has emerged as one of the keys to augmenting one’s CNP, a point which Chinese nationalists began to realize rather painfully when British gunboats made short work of Qing Dynasty defenses in the Opium War of 1842, and which was underlined by the ways in which the advanced industrial nations are said to have “humiliated” China for the better part of a century. Today, PRC strategists see geopolitical power as deriving from upon a country’s relative position on a figurative zero-sum totem pole of CNP, one’s spot on which in turn results in large part from the ability to employ leading-edge technology in its economy and military forces.
In the security realm, in particular, the ability of a country’s military forces to overpower their rivals — as those gunboats did against Qing Dynasty junks and antiquated shore fortifications — depends upon their ability to take advantage of cutting-edge technologies, and countries have historically been able to use military power projection to dominate the geopolitical scene to the degree that they have been able to occupy a position on the leading edge of successive “Revolutions in Military Affairs” (RMAs) that have occurred as new technologies have been applied to warfighting. Developing and acquiring foreign technology and employing it to support not merely China’s civilian economic development but also its military power, is thus viewed as absolutely essential for achieving the CCP’s dream of geopolitical “national rejuvenation.” Simply put, having concluded that being the primary beneficiary of the last RMA is the secret of a country’s military predominance, the CCP intends to position the PRC as the leader of the next one.
Understanding this is the key that unlocks an appreciation for the present-day CCP’s obsessive focus upon developing cutting-edge technological capabilities across a vast range of areas, and upon purchasing or stealing any foreign technology that the PRC cannot manage to build for itself. And it is this emphasis upon technology acquisition for strategic purposes — by means both fair and foul, and including systematic diversion to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Chinese security services — that presents the U.S. and broader Western export control community with unprecedented challenges.
III. Targeting Western Technology
Some of us were well aware of these challenges upon coming into office, for they serve as the historical and explanatory thread underlying the PRC’s epic efforts at often (but not exclusively) cyber-facilitated technology theft in the modern era — a phenomenon that former U.S. National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander has called “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.” Where this administration’s policy quickly evolved, however, was in marrying up these general insights with the U.S. Government’s growing understanding, both from intelligence and from open sources, of just how the CCP was implementing its technology acquisition strategies. Of particular importance, in this regard, was our growing awareness of the PRC building up its massive “Military-Civil Fusion” (MCF) system and how implementation of MCF includes targeting Western advanced and emerging technology to underpin the CCP’s twin strategic ambitions of economic and military dominance by 2049.
A. Reacting to MCF Abuses
I won’t dwell upon the details of China’s MCF apparatus here, but the turning point for U.S. national security export control policy — as distinct from, say, trade policy and use of tariffs, with which I’ve not been involved — arrived as we came to understand MCF’s implications in the realm of U.S. civil-nuclear exports. The most recent civil-nuclear cooperation agreement (a.k.a. “123 Agreement”) was negotiated with the PRC and then submitted to Congress by the Obama Administration in April 2015, updating the first 123 Agreement with Beijing, which had been negotiated some 30 years before.
The 2015 agreement was accompanied by a Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS) prepared by the Department of State. At the time, U.S. officials apparently didn’t see anything problematic about freely transferring American nuclear reactor technology to the PRC, and President Obama certified to Congress that the agreement was “based on a mutual commitment to nuclear nonproliferation” by the United States and China, and would “advance the nonproliferation and other foreign policy interests of the United States.” The agreement, he declared, “would promote, and will not constitute an unreasonable risk to, the common defense and security.”
Whether that assessment was accurate at the time is perhaps a debate for another day, but over the ensuing years it became abundantly clear that things were not right — and Beijing was not approaching these issues on the level. Upon my arrival at the State Department, I reviewed these questions and it became glaringly obvious that we needed to change course. As it turned out, the PRC’s huge, state-subsidized nuclear corporations were not simply acquiring U.S. civil nuclear technology to support their own reactor business. They were also stealing U.S. nuclear reactor technology, as the world learned upon the U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of the China General Nuclear Power Company in 2016.
These PRC companies, moreover, also turned out to be working closely with the PLA Navy (PLAN) in using such technology acquired abroad in support of PLAN’s naval nuclear propulsion projects. U.S. technology transfers, therefore, were in effect supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to develop new aircraft carriers with which the PRC could intimidate its Asian neighbors, new ballistic missile submarines that would carry nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, and floating nuclear power plants that would support Beijing’s ongoing seizure and militarization of the South China Sea.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Chairman, I found that situation horrifying. After an interagency review, therefore, the United States adopted a major realignment of its civil-nuclear export control policy, which we announced in October 2018, and that dramatically cut back the range of leading-edge civil-nuclear technologies that may lawfully be exported to the PRC. That new policy was, in turn, the jumping off point for the range of innovations in U.S. national security export control policy that have followed. Having recognized the national security challenges that were being created by MCF, it was clear that we needed a wholesale reassessment of U.S. approaches in response.
B. MCF Exploits Traditional Export Controls
I won’t belabor the specific changes we have already adopted as part of this ongoing process, Mr. Chairman, much less sketch what is still in the pipeline. But I will conclude this presentation by pointing out some of the ways in which PRC “Military-Civil Fusion” has directly and deliberately targeted key elements of the traditional approaches to national security export control and technology protection used by advanced technology-possessor states. If we do not wake up to these threats and close the holes that MCF has sought to tear in the fabric of our national security protections — and here I am speaking not just about U.S. policy but also about the approaches employed by all possessors of advanced technology that are targeted by the PRC, including France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom — the CCP will be handed a golden opportunity to advance its geopolitically revisionist dreams at our collective expense.
In the broadest sense, the ways in which MCF attempts to target U.S. and allied technology sectors all arise from the same source: the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to wield coercive power — if it wishes to — over any Chinese national or company, whether at home or even, to a great extent, abroad. It should hardly need stating that the relationship between Chinese companies or nationals and the PRC police state is radically different than what we are accustomed to in the West, but it is worth reemphasizing this point because it has radical implications for technology-transfer threats in the context of the CCP’s strategic ambitions.
Chinese companies or nationals clearly do not always, or necessarily even usually, act as de facto extensions of the CCP and do its bidding as functional appendages of the Chinese police state. Nevertheless, the CCP and the PRC government apparatus it controls — for, with apologies to Voltaire, who made a similar point about the relationship between 18th Century Prussia and its army, while most states have political parties, the Chinese Communist Party quite literally has its own state — enjoy extraordinary powers to coerce and to co-opt essentially anyone, if the Party chooses to exert itself in such a fashion. This has been true for the PRC for some time, but the CCP has raised the stakes further in recent weeks with the application of its draconian new “national security law” not merely to those in the territory of Hong Kong but also to persons from Hong Kong even when they are working and living abroad.
In a sharp contrast to the situation prevailing in the free, rights-based, rule-of-law democracies of the West, therefore, this makes all engagements with Chinese companies and Chinese nationals, at least potentially, into direct engagements with the PRC itself, and the CCP more specifically. And this, in turn, has chilling implications for national security export control policy.
Against such a backdrop of authoritarian Party power, for instance, MCF is able to target U.S. and likeminded technology controls in part by subverting the end-use and end-user commitments upon which much of our national security export control process traditionally depends. The PRC recipient of a high-technology export might agree to certain restrictions under conditions imposed by export licensing rules, and might even do so in good faith, with the best of intentions. If that technology attracts the attention of the MCF apparatus, however, the recipient will have no ability to refuse diversion to the PRC’s military industrial complex no matter what it has promised its Western partner.
If the PLA or the PRC security services desire a technology, in other words, they have clear and unquestionable authority under Chinese law and practice to compel its diversion to them, irrespective of any end-use or end-user commitments that may have been made. The whole purpose of MCF, after all, is to break down barriers between the civilian and military sectors: if anyone subject to the PRC’s jurisdiction and the CCP’s coercive powers gets access to a technology targeted by the MCF system, one has to assume that access can easily be exploited. This, of course, plays havoc with traditional licensing conditionalities.
For similar reasons, the CCP’s powers of coercion also present a challenge to traditional nonproliferation visa screening procedures and mechanisms for ensuring that only authorized so-called “deemed exports” or intangible technology transfers occur if and when a foreign national is given any access to controlled technology, even in the United States. It is not merely that Chinese nationals subject to those powers of coercion are at risk of being co-opted by the MCF system for purpose of technology acquisition — even by theft — if the CCP wants. It is also that the MCF apparatus systematically employs techniques for obfuscating the background and institutional affiliation of some students, researchers, scientists, and technicians who travel abroad for study or work in the West, and often works to steer such travelers specifically to technology areas that are priorities for MCF acquisition. This makes traditional methods of nonproliferation visa screening much more challenging as a means of mitigating national security risks.
The CCP’s ability to exercise coercive control over Chinese nationals and entities, if it wishes to do so, also allows the MCF apparatus the ability to steer Chinese commercial and entrepreneurial investments abroad in ways that support the system’s technology-acquisition goals. To the degree that the United States and some other likeminded countries have built national security screening mechanisms such as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the CCP’s powers also allow it to steer Chinese entities toward modes of engagement that sidestep or attempt to work around such controls — leading to an ongoing game of “cat and mouse” between those seeking to screen for abuses and those from the PRC seeking to wiggle through any gaps.
The broad coercive powers of the CCP, Mr. Chairman, also present national security challenges because of the potential they create for any relationships with PRC corporate entities — even ones that do not involve the acquisition of advanced technologies — to be exploited or manipulated for the PRC’s strategic advantage. For that reason, I try to emphasize to the counterparties, customers, and host governments for Chinese companies operating abroad that when they turn over financial or personal data to such companies, or transmit it through networks controlled by those companies, they are putting this information in the hands of people who, if asked, will likely turn that information over to the Chinese Communist Party. They also need to remember that if they allow such a company to control any of their assets, networks, or systems, that they are giving CCP officials in Beijing the chance to deny or restrict this access at some point in the future, as a tool of coercion and manipulation — an opportunity for extortionate bullying that the PRC has already made clear on numerous occasions it is unlikely to be shy about taking.
So, Mr. Chairman, I hope that these remarks have helped outline the nature of the strategic challenge we face from the remarkable conjunction between the CCP’s geopolitical revisionism and its determination to use its coercive powers in support of technology acquisition abroad. This is a challenge that we are working to meet across a range of U.S. policy areas, and it is an important focal point of our diplomacy to encourage such responsive measures in other countries as well.
I hope that these comments have been helpful in situating these challenges in their historical and strategic context. I can certainly assure you that those of us in the Executive Branch look forward to continuing to work closely with those of you in the U.S. Congress to find ever better ways to meet the threats that CCP policies present.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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