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  • Alejandro Vera

Nothing Brings Home the Bacon Like War: The Underside of U.S. Sanctions on China

Image by Karolina Kaboompics

In a significant geopolitical move, the United States has imposed a new wave of sanctions targeting Chinese entities for their role in supplying weapons to Russia. These sanctions are as much about curbing China's economic ascent as they are about supporting Ukraine amidst its conflict with Russia.

On May 1, 2024, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced sanctions against nearly 300 individuals and entities. These measures are aimed at degrading Russia's military-industrial complex, with a specific focus on those in third countries, particularly China, that are supplying critical materials and technology to Russia. The U.S. accuses these entities of aiding Russia in its ongoing war effort against Ukraine, thereby posing a significant threat to international and global security. However, with over 5000 different targeted sanctions, Russia's economic machine remains undeterred and continues to fund the war against Ukraine. 

While these sanctions emphasize support for Ukraine, they are also deeply rooted in the U.S.'s strategic interests to limit China's rise as a global economic power. The sanctions target Chinese companies accused of supplying "dual-use" equipment—commercial items that can be repurposed for military use. For instance, shipments from China to Russia have included drones, drone parts, rifles, and body armor routed through third countries like Turkey​.  

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Chinese exports to Russia have surged by 64.2 percent, as evidenced by customs data. The trade between the two nations has soared to an astounding $240 billion, a record number for Moscow-Beijing trade figures. Publicly accessible customs data reveal that China exports over $300 million worth of dual-use products each month, the United States, the European Union, Japan, and the United Kingdom designating these as"high priority" items critical for Russia's weapons production. High-priority, dual-use products are particularly important to Russia since they are essential for manufacturing weaponry like missiles, drones, and tanks.

In 2023, crucial dual-use items like semiconductors, telecommunications gear, and machine tools topped the list of Chinese exports to Russia under high-priority export controls. Fast forward to the first two months of 2024, China saw a remarkable 30 percent surge in exports of integrated circuits (I.C.s) or semiconductor chips. During this period, I.C. exports totaled $22.33 billion, marking a significant 28.6 percent annual increase, as per data released by the General Administration of Customs on Thursday.

These U.S. sanctions align with broader efforts to maintain economic dominance. By cutting off Chinese companies from lucrative Western markets, the U.S. aims to stymie China's economic momentum. This approach reflects a strategic imperative: to ensure that China does not surpass the U.S. as the world's leading economic power. The intersection of economic policy and national security is evident in this comprehensive sanction regime, which seeks to "throw sand in the gears" of both Russia's war machine and China's economic engine​.

Although China benefits from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, it is now cut off from numerous Western technology markets. While the economic impact is sure to be significant, these new sanctions might also affect the country's technological development capabilities in unexpected ways. Overly stringent U.S. export controls could push Asia's leading economy to develop its own semiconductor and I.C. technologies. China cannot outcompete U.S.-based companies in chip processor technologies and heavily relies on superior technologies from the West. However, the new U.S. sanctions have substantially hindered China's ability to continue producing advanced technologies without Western components.  U.S. sanctions and export restrictions on China and Chinese companies are intended to place them at a technological disadvantage. However, as Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger notes, "If that line is too restrictive, then China has to build its own chips." Isolated from existing markets, China may develop its own competitive semiconductors and I.C.s, potentially even superior ones.

Another adverse result of these sanctions is the economic cost to U.S. companies like Intel, Nvidia, and AMD. Intel terminated a $500 million partnership with Huawei due to these sanctions. While the losses of an already multibillion-dollar company may not seem significant, technological advancements will continue over time. Without a market for these innovations, the economic consequences could be severe.

The ramifications of these sanctions are not confined to the immediate geopolitical context. They serve as a clear message to global markets and international actors, demonstrating the U.S.'s readiness to use its economic influence to achieve strategic goals. This move has further strained U.S.-China relations, potentially leading to retaliatory measures from Beijing in the form of continued support for Russia.


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