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GOP senators press Pompeo on Boeing satellite sales to Chinese firms

GOP senators press Pompeo on Boeing satellite sales to Chinese firms
© Greg Nash

Republican senators are pressing the State Department for answers on Boeing's sales of American-made satellites to Chinese companies, raising national security concerns and worries Beijing is using the technology for human rights abuses.

"The use of American satellite technology by the Chinese military and police raises serious military, national security, and human rights concerns," Sens. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyOn The Money: Treasury announces efforts to help people get stimulus payments | Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury | Judge sets ground rules for release of Trump taxes Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury Finance Committee vote on Yellen nomination scheduled for Friday MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Democrats torn on impeachment trial timing MORE (R-Iowa) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoWhite House installs new leadership at federally-funded international broadcasters US carrier group enters South China Sea amid tensions between China, Taiwan Biden can hold China accountable for human rights abuses by divesting now MORE made public Monday and sent June 27.

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"Robust export control laws are critical to ensuring that sensitive technology does not fall into the hands of those who may use it against us," they added.

The senators cited a Wall Street Journal story from April which reported that Boeing has built nine communications satellites for China and is working on a 10th.

"These satellites are allegedly 'part of efforts to connect Chinese soldiers on contested outposts in the South China Sea, strengthen police forces against social unrest and make sure state messaging penetrates far and wide,' " Grassley and Ernst added, quoting from the report.

The senators asked Pompeo to answer a number of questions, including whether the sales would violate U.S. laws prohibiting the sale of satellite technology to the Chinese government, as well as what steps the U.S. can take to prevent Chinese firms from export laws intended to keep sensitive American technology out of the hands of China's government. They asked Pompeo to respond by July 10.

Grassley and Ernst are not the first senators to question if Chinese firms are helping their government evade export controls to obtain U.S. technology. The two note that earlier this year, House Financial Services Committee ranking member Patrick McHenryPatrick Timothy McHenryOn The Money: Treasury announces efforts to help people get stimulus payments | Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury | Judge sets ground rules for release of Trump taxes The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds GOP at crossroads after Capitol siege MORE (R-N.C.) also wrote to Boeing about whether "a firm with connections to the Chinese government may have used a complex financing arrangement in an attempt to skirt U.S. export controls related to national security."

"Boeing follows the lead of the U.S. Government with respect to the use of export controlled items and consults closely with the U.S. Commerce Department concerning the marketing and sale of commercial satellites in the global marketplace to ensure the protection of American technology," Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said in a statement to The Hill.

"Among other U.S. manufacturers, Boeing provided two of the nine Asia Sat commercial satellites in the referenced article almost two decades ago via its legacy company, Hughes Space and Communications. The State and Commerce departments over four administrations—and most recently in 2017—reviewed and approved export licenses for those two satellites specifically for the provision of commercial bandwidth services to the Asia region, including China," the statement continued.

"The licenses prohibit technology transfer, not use of bandwidth. Boeing continues to take rigorous measures to comply with US export regulations and the protection of intellectual property."

The letter comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. The two countries are in a trade war, with President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE and Chinese President Xi Jinping trading retaliatory tariffs. The two met last weekend at the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Japan, where they agreed to hold off on new tariffs and to resume trade talks. But those talks face a number of complicated issues, including resolving U.S. allegations of intellectual property theft and other anti-competitive practices.

Lawmakers have also intensified their scrutiny on Chinese companies seeking to do business in the U.S., in particular telecommunications company Huawei, which is seen as having ties to the government in Beijing and which U.S. intelligence agencies see as a security threat.

The Trump administration placed Huawei on a list of companies that U.S. businesses would be barred from dealing with, but then subsequently delayed that move. Trump has seen the company as a bargaining chip in the larger trade talks, telling reporters at the G-20 that he intended to ease his ban on the company, a move that sparked pushback from lawmakers in both parties.

Updated at 7:03 p.m.