The US is set to clamp down on hi-tech exports to China, less than two years after entrusting the IT industry with self-regulation.
It was alleged this week that US Secretary of State Madeline Albright took advantage of her presence at the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese to protest to the Beijing authorities about the unapproved shipment of a US supercomputer to one of China?s top military research bases.
The Sun Microsystems machine was sold to a Hong Kong firm and then resold to a scientific institution in Beijing. Under US export rules, a sale to such an end user would not require special permission from the government.
But reports now claim that the computer never made it to Beijing, but is instead installed in a defence research institute in Changsha, in the south eastern province of Hunan. The Chinese authorities have denied the claims, but will not allow US officials to inspect the computer and its location. China does not allow officials to check that technology acquired from US firms actually ends up at the intended location.
For its part, Sun says it is trying to recover the machine. A spokesman said in a statement: "Sun did not sell this computer directly to the end user in question, nor did Sun know that the ultimate user of the computer was not approved by the government until last week."
In 1995, President Clinton eased the stringent controls governing supercomputer exports, urging the IT industry to shoulder the responsibility for self-regulation of their behaviour. Many senior politicians believe that this requirement has not been met and want to see the old rules reimposed.
Republican Senator Thad Cochran, chairman a Senate committee on international security, is the prime mover behind efforts to tighten up what he calls "deeply flawed US export policy". He claims that there are five US supercomputers in use inside Russia?s nuclear weapons plants and up to 46 across China.
If Cochran gets his way, an amendment to the law will reduce the maximum level of theoretical operations per second that computers can boast without needing special export licences. The upper level is currently 7,000 million, a figure which Cochran wants cut to 2,000.
US computer companies would have to apply to the US Commerce Department on a case by case basis for permission to export supercomputer technology to countries that are known to carry out research and development on nuclear weapons, including Russia and China.
Earlier this year Silicon Graphics was red faced when it had to admit that it had shipped a supercomputer to a Russian weapons facility, believing that it was really going to a environmental pollution research centre.
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