The Clinton administration said yesterday it will ease restrictions on the types of computers that can be sold to China and other emerging markets, averting a "technology train wreck" forecast by leading computer companies that complained that the old guidelines were out of date.
The administration's new regulations, unveiled at the White House by Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, will immediately enable the computer industry to sell far more powerful computers to civilian users in China and 50 other nations that pose weapons proliferation risks without obtaining export licenses.
The new regulations maintain a system of tighter controls for computer exports to military users in those nations, but nonetheless triples the threshold for export licenses from 2,000 to 6,500 MTOPS, or millions of theoretical operations per second, the standard measurement of computing speed. The regulations lift the threshold for civilian sales much more, from 7,000 to 12,300 MTOPS.
"What was controlled in 1993 as a supercomputer is now less powerful than the most-used laptops," said Commerce Secretary William Daley, who joined Podesta at a news briefing. He held up a Sony PlayStation video game computer scheduled for sale this Christmas and said that it would require an export license for sale by a U.S. firm to China as a "supercomputer" without the new regulations.
The new standard for computer exports to military users must undergo a six-month review by Congress before it takes effect and could be challenged by some leading Republicans who believe that the Chinese military has used powerful U.S. computers to model nuclear weapons and improve its battle capabilities.
But even Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who chaired a House select committee that investigated China's theft of nuclear secrets and sensitive military technology, signaled that he might be willing to support the new standard for military sales, as long as the administration works to ensure that the most powerful supercomputers go into the hands of civilians, and not foreign militaries that could use them for nuclear weapons applications.
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, said he backed the administration plan and would be willing to consider a one-time waiver of the traditional six-month waiting period under certain circumstances.
Louis V. Gerstner Jr., chairman and CEO of International Business Machines Corp., led a chorus of computer executives in applauding the regulations but said a new system is needed so that the government's export guidelines can keep pace with technological advances. "This is the information age," Gerstner said. "Our policies need to reflect that."
Beyond liberalizing export controls on computer sales to China and other nations posing proliferation risks, the administration increased the export threshold for computer sales to South Korea, South Africa and more than 100 other nations that pose only minimal proliferation risks. The administration also moved four nations, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Brazil, from the low proliferation category to a grouping of closely allied nations for which there are no export controls.