US to ease export controls despite China fears

In a victory for advocates of closer commercial ties with China, the U.S. Senate Thursday passed the Export Administration Act of 2001, which loosens government controls on the export of sensitive technologies. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 85-14, despite fears that China may one day use those same technologies to threaten the U.S.

The bill modifies the Export Administration Act of 1979, which expired in 1994 and has been extended while Congress has battled over several previous, unsuccessful attempts to pass an updated export-control law. The current bill grants the U.S. president and officials at the U.S. Department of Commerce greater latitude in regulating the export of sensitive technologies and hardware, including supercomputers. It is backed by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and is supported by the Computer Coalition for Responsible Exports (CCRE), a lobbying group that represents the interests of several U.S.-based IT companies, including Intel Corp., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Following a failed bid to attach an amendment to the bill that would have given U.S. government agencies the power to block export licenses for up to 60 days if an export-license application was considered damaging to national security, opponents of the bill acknowledged they were likely to face defeat.

"We know which way the die is cast as far as this bill is concerned," said Fred Thompson, a Republican senator from Tennessee and critic of the bill, in a speech Wednesday. Despite their resignation to defeat on the Senate floor, critics of the bill maintained their opposition to many of its provisions.

One of the key concerns held by opponents of the bill is a foreign-availability clause that removes export controls for dual-use technologies where a comparable product is already available abroad. Dual-use technologies are technologies that have both civilian and military applications. Opponents argued that easing restrictions on the export of these technologies to China will threaten U.S. interests in Asia and elsewhere.

"A decision to liberalize controls on dual-use technologies, every one of which by definition have military applications, while acknowledging, as we all do, the very real threat posed by China to Taiwan and to U.S. interests in the Far East, is therefore inconsistent with and clearly contrary to our national interest," said Jon Kyl, a Republican senator from Arizona.

An amendment attached to the bill on Thursday was intended to address some concerns related to the foreign-availability clause, adding a requirement that technologies and products available abroad must be determined to be of a similar quality to U.S. products before export controls can be lifted.

The bill will now be sent to the U.S. House of Representatives for approval. If the House also approves the bill, it will be sent to President Bush in order to be signed into law.

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