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Green tech unappealing offer under tight US export rules

05-24-2010 14:16 BJT

By Tian Wei

Joseph Needham, the great British Sinologist, started explorations into the relationship between Chinese civilization and technological intervention after encountering three young Chinese scientists in England in the 1930s.

At the time, only specialists knew about Chinese discoveries in science and technology, such as printing, the magnetic compass, and gunpowder. The Western public perceived the Chinese as imitators at best.

Needham's work, especially his magnum opus, Science & Civilisation in China, demonstrated the amount that Western scientific development owed to imported Chinese ideas.

After centuries of scientific stagnation, modern Chinese is keen to get back into the technological race.

But kick starting Chinese innovation without help from outside is still a tough challenge.

For example, China has openly committed to low-carbon development. But China needs more than 60 key technologies to realize its carbon intensity reduction goal in major industrial sectors such as electricity, transport, buildings, steel and chemicals. Yet, according to a recent UN report, "for 70 percent of this necessary know-how, China does not have the core technology."

China has two choices, either buying the necessary technology from multinationals or developing it itself. The former is much less painful, but difficult to achieve under current circumstances.

China has faced export controls from developed economies for decades, and has been trying for years to urge nations such as the US to relax their restrictions.

But the US Congress has only tightened the rules, citing "the danger of China obtaining US tech secrets."

With the recent visit by US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, however, there seems to be possibility for change for the better. This doesn't stem from renewed trust in China on Washington's part, but from the necessity to achieve President Barack Obama's goal to double exports and create 2 million jobs within five years.

US products accounted for 7.5 percent of China's high technology imports last year. This fell from a high of 18.3 percent in 2001, partly due to the US exports control system, according to China's Ministry of Commerce. If the share in 2001 is used as a benchmark, US companies lost at least $33 billion worth of export opportunities in 2009 alone.

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