Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the US State Department, spoke on July 11 at the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) 2018 Summer Conference on nuclear technology transfer to China. PONI is a program hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies to further discussions on nuclear technology’s role throughout the world. Dr. Ford discussed how China’s explicit national policy of removing barriers between its civilian and military industries affects US export control policy for certain commercial nuclear technologies. This speech is important because, in our view, it publicly articulates the policy toward China that the US government has been implementing behind the scenes for some time.
Dr. Ford explained the US government’s interest in China’s national plan for “military-civil fusion” of the defense and civilian industrial bases, and how that interest is informing US policy toward China. The plan reflects China’s highest-priority strategic goals intended to ensure that China develops a military and defense base within both industry and the government. As a result, China encourages shifting technology and products from civil to military and military to civil applications where beneficial to China. Dr. Ford stated that “[t]he Chinese system is thus working to eliminate all barriers between its civilian and defense industrial sectors to promote the free flow of technology, intellectual property, talent, and expertise between civilian and defense entities.” Therefore, Dr. Ford concluded that if any such technology is accessible by China, it will be used to benefit China’s military and national security complex. The result of this presumption is that the US government is reviewing options from a licensing, policy, or process perspective to address access of this technology by military or national security sectors, as well as manage and account for these transfers.
This fusion policy creates significant challenges for the United States regarding export control and weapons technology proliferation. Because the issues stem from deliberate, consistent, and published Chinese national policy, mitigating mechanisms such as private contracts and international controls such as diplomatic agreements are likely ineffective at relieving these challenges. Dr. Ford acknowledged that the United States’ concerns do not apply to all nuclear technologies transferred to China, but the US government has not publicly identified which nuclear technologies may be of concern. Nevertheless, Dr. Ford suggested that the United States may need to revise how it implements and evaluates its national security export controls with China.