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Just as my good buddy Ace recently gave me a great idea for a post on U.S. Ukraine policy, my equally good buddy Swifty (a finance guy) yesterday gave me an equally great idea – about how to ensure that U.S. curbs on sales of high tech equipment to China really put the hammer on the semiconductor industry being built in the People’s Republic. And interestingly, it mirrors an idea that I proposed many years ago for America’s human rights policy – government compensation for American-owned firms that lose business due to such limits.

In recent months, Washington has made major – albeit incredibly belated – progress in cutting off such American aid to Chinese tech manufacturers, whose burgeoning capabilities of course will boost China’s military power and potential. Important restrictions on what U.S.- and foreign-owned businesses can supply to China’s microchip entities are contained both in the bill signed by President Biden to boost semiconductor manufacturing in the United States, and in a sweeping set of restrictions on what both U.S.- and foreign-owned firms can supply to China’s microchip entities.

But even if these new policies are adequately enforced – always a big question surrounding American efforts slow China’s tech progress – they suffer two related weaknesses stemming from their tight focus on the highest end semiconductors and the equipment needed to make them. First, the vast majority of chips in use today – including in military systems – are lower-tech, so-called “legacy” chips, and China’s growing presence in the global market for these devices can create dangerous vulnerabilities itself.

Second, any sales of the machinery and software needed to make these legacy chips is bound to wind up helping teach Chinese scientists and engineers how to make their more advanced counterparts.

And this is where Swifty’s idea comes in. As he noted, it needs to be America’s goal to cripple China’s ability to make any type of semiconductor, and to completely shut down its learning opportunities. The big obstacle to imposing the broader controls needed to achieve this goal? The fact that this step would drive U.S.-owned companies that make semiconductor manufacturing equipment out of one of their biggest markets.

Swifty’s recommendation? Compensate them for these losses – at least until they can recoup them by selling to friendly countries to which chip production that’s under pressure from U.S. restrictions moves from China. He adds that such payments would be eminently affordable.

After all, even though the China market is enormously important to these firms, the China revenues they say they’ll lose are drops in the bucket compared with the mammoth scale of overall U.S. government spending, and even of the U.S. defense budget. (For some company-specific figures, see, e.g., here and here.)

That last point is particularly critical. For knee-capping China’s tech prowess is vital to U.S. national security. So think of these payments as defense spending – since it’s at least as important to prevent China from deploying lots of high tech weapons on the battlefield in the first place as to develop ways to fight them on the battlefield.

This national security perspective also matters greatly for dealing with another possible outcome of this greatly escalated U.S. strategy of denial – sabotage by American allies whose tech companies try to take advantage of U.S.-owned firms’ exit from China. Although the Biden administration has given some of them temporary exemptions, so far, the rest seem to be abiding by the new Biden administration rules – even in one case in which a loophole may well exist. But if they balk at wider restrictions, they should be told that their actions could wind up enabling Chinese forces to kill Americans in combat, and that they can’t expect continued U.S. protection if they persist. 

Way back in the early 1980s, I wrote that if the United States was serious about human rights policy, compensation should be paid to American-owned companies that lose foreign business in dictator-ruled countries subjected to U.S. economic sanctions. If Swifty’s similar approach isn’t used for China tech policy, it’ll be difficult to claim that the nation is serious about its national security.        

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