In the wake of World War II, there was widespread opposition by US presidents and regulators towards placing export controls on a rising USSR. Although export controls enjoyed broad popular support, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower worried that they could damage the US economy, alienate allies, and potentially accelerate the USSR’s pursuit of a self-sufficient economy.
Nonetheless, the rise of McCarthyism and growing calls for trade action by the American public made export controls on goods of military value practically unavoidable. Truman and Eisenhower ultimately relented, initiating sanctions that laid the foundation for the export control system currently engaged by the Trump Administration on China. Washington is quickly learning, however, that modern-day China is more technologically advanced and integrated into the global economy than its Soviet predecessor was. Faced with the first near-peer adversary in decades, Washington is struggling to adapt an outdated export control framework to the current world order.
American export controls against Huawei
In 2019, the US Department of Commerce prohibited the sale of chips manufactured by US semiconductor companies to Huawei. Although Beijing has invested heavily in the domestic semiconductor industry to reduce its reliance on foreign suppliers, its efforts have had limited results.
Part of the difficulty in building a homegrown semiconductor industry from scratch lies in perfecting both design and precision manufacturing technologies. Although China has vastly improved its design capabilities, its manufacturing capabilities still lag behind those of foreign competitors. In response to the loss of its American suppliers, Huawei’s chip design unit, HiSilicon, outsourced manufacturing to TSMC, a Taiwanese chip manufacturer.
The workaround consequently motivated the Department of Commerce to tighten its grip on Huawei with a new rule that prohibited companies from using US technology to manufacture chips for Huawei, effectively isolating Huawei from TSMC and other foreign suppliers in a move reflective of the changing attitude in Washington towards export controls as a tool in its arsenal against China. Recent volatility surrounding Huawei has also impacted the group’s relationship with other sovereign clients, with several European countries reversing course and banning Huawei from taking part in future 5G networks.
Weakening efficacy of export controls in today’s world
Having declared in its 2017 National Security Strategy that “economic security is national security,” the Trump Administration has turned export controls from an arcane backwater of trade policy into the frontline of US-China decoupling. However, Washington faces a modernized global landscape that renders export controls less effective. Not only have other countries – friend and foe – developed domestic high-tech industries that offer alternatives to American technology firms, China’s interconnectedness within the global economy significantly increases the price of US alignment towards China’s rise within the West.
Effective trade controls require multilateral cooperation to succeed. On an industry level, in order to isolate Huawei from the global semiconductor industry, the US had to persuade foreign manufacturers like TSMC into cutting ties with Huawei. Had the US failed to do so, Huawei could have found alternative suppliers and the American semiconductor industry would have needlessly ceded market share to global competitors. Furthermore, from a macro perspective, different countries rely on economic engagement with China to different degrees. Germany, for example, exported US$109 billion of physical goods to China in 2018. France, by comparison, exported a meager US$24 billion. Because countries like Germany and France would have a hard time agreeing on a common set of export controls, coordinating a multilateral agreement on the matter would be a slow and lengthy battle for the US.
The bottom line
The damage to high-tech US industries like chip design and manufacturing could be permanent. After all, export controls and tariffs incentivize Chinese companies to diversify their supply chains to the current detriment of American companies, a reality made possible by the global diffusion of technological know-how. As President Xi’s recent promise to invest an eye-popping US$1.4 trillion in technology independence by 2025 demonstrates, decoupling also incentivizes China to pursue self-sufficiency. Furious lobbying by the semiconductor industry, which earns over a quarter of its revenue in China, softened the impact of last year’s ban on chip sales to Huawei by easing select restrictions on chips sales. However, as Washington’s stance hardens, American technology companies may have to prepare for a short-term hit to their bottom lines while preparing for a future that does not include China.