The United States has waged low-grade economic warfare against China for at least four years now—firing volley after volley of tariffs, export controls, investment blocks, visa limits, and much more. But Washington’s endgame for this conflict has always been hazy. Does it seek to compel specific changes in Beijing’s behavior, or challenge the Chinese system itself? To protect core security interests, or retain hegemony by any means? To strengthen America, or hobble its chief rival? Donald Trump’s scattershot regulation and erratic public statements offered little clarity to allies, adversaries, and companies around the world. Joe Biden’s actions have been more systematic, but long-term U.S. goals have remained hidden beneath bureaucratic opacity and cautious platitudes.
Last Friday, however, a dense regulatory filing from a little-known federal agency gave the strongest hint yet of U.S. intentions. The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) announced new extraterritorial limits on the export to China of advanced semiconductors, chip-making equipment, and supercomputer components. The controls, more so than any earlier U.S. action, reveal a single-minded focus on thwarting Chinese capabilities at a broad and fundamental level. Although framed as a national security measure, the primary damage to China will be economic, on a scale well out of proportion to Washington’s cited military and intelligence concerns. The U.S. government imposed the new rules after limited consultation with partner countries and companies, proving that its quest to hobble China ranks well above concerns about the diplomatic or economic repercussions.