UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Briefing With Senior State Department and Commerce Officials On State Department Visa Restrictions Placed on Individuals from the People's Republic of China and Commerce Department Restrictions Placed on Chinese Corporate Entities

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Via Teleconference
August 26, 2020

MODERATOR: Thank you, and thanks to everyone for joining for this on-background conference call on U.S. visa restrictions and Commerce's entity listing for PRC companies and individuals tied to malign activities by the PRC in South China Sea. The State Department official joining us today is [Senior State Department Official]. For the purposes of the transcript and for your reporting, he will be referred to as Senior State Department Official. And joining us from Commerce we have [Senior Commerce Official One], and he'll be referred to as Senior U.S. Government Official Number One. Also on the call today to help answer questions is [Senior Commerce Official Two], and he'd be referred to as Senior U.S. Government Official Number Two.

As a reminder, this briefing is on background, and the contents of the briefing are embargoed until the conclusion of the call. For the sake of efficiency, if you want to go ahead and get into the question queue, just dial 1 then 0. And with that, I will turn it over to [Senior State Department Official].

STAFF: Hi. I'm sorry, this is [Staff] here real quick. I understand that that could be a little bit confusing. For [Senior Commerce Official One] and [Senior Commerce Official Two] from the Commerce Department, feel free to attribute them as Commerce officials. I apologize for the confusion.

MODERATOR: [Senior State Department Official], go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Fantastic. Thanks, everyone, for joining, and I look forward to your questions. The background to the announcements that were made this morning by Secretary Pompeo, State Department, and by the Commerce Department are the announcement that we made last month of a new U.S. policy on Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. We aligned ourselves strongly with the 2016 international arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea case between China and the Philippines, and we stated last month that Beijing is pursuing unlawful maritime claims across the South China Sea. We made this clarification to strengthen our support for Southeast Asian coastal states in upholding their sovereign rights, and to reflect our deep concern over the increasingly brazen manner in which Beijing has deployed coercive tactics to inhibit other claimants' access to offshore marine resources.

Beijing has pursued environmentally destructive land reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts. This has done irreparable damage to coral reefs. They have also used these platforms in the South China Sea as platforms of coercion against their neighbors, expanding the reach of PRC maritime militia and civilian law enforcement vessels, often backed by the Chinese military, to intimidate Southeast Asian claimants from accessing offshore resources. These actions are provocative and destabilizing. In the case of Mischief Reef and the Spratly Islands, which was determined by the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling to be within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf, Beijing's development there – its building and militarization – is a violation of the Philippines' sovereign rights and jurisdiction under the Law of the Sea Convention.

Beijing's state-owned enterprises have played a key role in building and militarizing these outposts. The U.S. firmly opposes these efforts, and we are taking actions to make clear that further militarization and further coercion is unacceptable and entirely contrary to the interests of China's neighbors and the United States and the world. So this morning, the Commerce Department announced that it has added 24 of Beijing's state-owned enterprises, including subsidiaries of the China Communications Construction Company – CCCC – to the entity list for their role in these South China Sea activities. I'll leave it to my Commerce Department colleagues to elaborate on all of that. In addition, Secretary Pompeo announced the imposition of visa restrictions on PRC nationals, including executives of state-owned enterprises, responsible for Beijing's reclamation, construction, or militarization of disputed outposts and coercion of Southeast Asian claimants.

We took these actions in support of our shared vision of an Indo-Pacific where all countries are secure in their sovereignty and disputes are resolved in accordance with international law. In doing this, we have various aims, including, of course, to impose costs on bad actors and to encourage all sorts of parties and institutions and governments around the world to assess risk and reconsider business deals with the sort of predatory Chinese state-owned enterprises that we've identified here, to include China Communications Construction Company and its subsidiaries that have been so central to the militarization and coercion in the South China Sea. CCCC, which led on the dredging, is also one of the leading contractors used by Beijing in its global "One Belt One Road" strategy. The company and its subsidiaries have engaged in corruption, predatory financing, environmental destruction, and other abuses in countries all around the world. It is frankly a long and diverse and colorful and very unfortunate record in a long list of countries.

To give just a few examples: In 2009, CCCC was blacklisted by the World Bank for fraudulent bidding practices on a highway contract in the Philippines. In Malaysia, we've seen over the years major controversy over CCCC's rail projects and corruption allegations and suspicions, and a very prominent renegotiation of that CCCC Belt and Road arrangement in the last few years. In Bangladesh, the CCCC subsidiary China Harbor Engineering corp was blacklisted from projects after bribing an official, according to the Bangladesh Government. Also in Bangladesh court nine years ago the China Harbor Engineering Company was found to have paid bribes to the son of a Bangladeshi prime minister who was later sentenced to prison. In Sri Lanka, there have been longstanding accusations of corruption and bribery involving China Harbor Engineering corp and the Hambantota Port project, which is very well known in the Belt and Road story.

And perhaps to end here, in Kenya, we've seen many illustrations of unfortunate practices by the CCCC subsidiary China Road and Bridge Corp, to include the guilty plea of China Road and Bridge officials for bribery and a range of other concerns about this major railway project, to include labor abuse concerns, basic quality and viability concerns, as well as others. These are companies that are acting in this fashion and also doing so in very close cooperation with the Chinese military, as seen in the South China Sea, as seen in the Djibouti port and elsewhere. I'll stop there for now and throw it over to my Commerce colleagues, but look forward to your questions. Thank you.

SENIOR COMMERCE OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], and this is [Senior Commerce Official One] from Department of Commerce. The action we took today, which is on public display at the Federal Register and will be published tomorrow and effective tomorrow, adds 24 Chinese parties to our entity list out of a group today of 60 total – almost half – for their role in the militarization of the shoals in the South China Sea, as was just described in detail by my State Department colleague.

The consequences of parties being added to our entity list is that any item subject to our regulations, which essentially means anything leaving the United States as well as certain items that are made abroad, when they are to be exported, re-exported, or even transferred in-country to a party on the entity list, is a specific license is required. In other words, the party seeking to make that transfer of commodities, equipment, software, or technology to the parties on the entity list has to come into Commerce for a specific license, which then we review in consultation with the departments of State and Defense and sometimes Energy, and then issue a decision, either an approval or denial.

So it's a comprehensive requirement that all items subject to the Export Administration Regulations – again, for export, re-export, or in-country transfer to these 24 parties added to the entity list – needs an individual license. So it has the result of ensuring that, going forward, any transfer of such items to these parties undergoes U.S. Government review and, as a practical matter, the licensing policy is presumption of denial for any such proposed exports, re-exports, or in-country transfers.

Over the last five years, there's been a relatively small amount – $5 million roughly, total – of U.S. exports to these parties, but certainly going forward this will address any proposed exports. We also know from experience that even when there are transactions that don't involve items subject to the EAR, typically many companies tend to stay away from doing business with parties on the entity list, either just for reputational purposes or to further ensure that they don't run afoul of the Export Administration Regulations. And this requirement applies whether these parties are the end user of the proposed export, the ultimate consignee, the intermediate consignee, or even the purchaser. So basically any way that they might be materially involved in a transaction, this license requirement applies to them. So that's a summary of what the consequences of placing these parties on the entity list does. Over.

MODERATOR: Okay. Now we'll turn to your questions. Again, if you want to get in the queue, dial 1 and then 0. For our first question let's go to the line of Matt Lee. Matt, are you on?

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: There you go, Matt. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you hear me? Hello?

MODERATOR: Yep, got you, Matt. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Okay. Leaving aside the fact that the part – that the U.S. is not a party to UNCLOS and has been accused by a lot of people of picking and choosing what international decisions it wants to agree or support or enforce, and the fact that the administration's own environmental policies have come under criticism for being less than friendly to the environment, I'm curious – I mean, leaving those aside, I want – are – have you identified specific Chinese officials or Chinese company executives who have – who are going to be targeted with these travel bans?

And on the presumption of denial from Commerce, does that apply to absolutely everything that might be sold to these companies' subsidiaries? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Matt. [Senior State Department Official] here from State. On the question of the application of the visa sanctions, yes, we have identified individuals and their relatives. As the Secretary's statement this morning notes, we are not able to, because of the nature of the specific statutory authority, so-called 3(c) under the – under INA, we can't make public the names, but as our statement this morning says, we have imposed visa restrictions on PRC individuals, including certain executives of state-owned enterprises who are responsible for or complicit in either the large-scale reclamation, construction, or militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea, or the PRC's use of coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to inhibit their access to offshore resources. And those visa ineligibilities took effect this morning.

On the environmental question, I would note that the question of whether the U.S. is – sort of the context in which we look at the record of environmental abuse by Beijing, I mean, this is something that is a concern across so many populations and countries in Asia and elsewhere that it is a matter of obvious foreign policy, interest – obvious, enormous interest to the communities not just around the South China Sea or not just, as we see with the Galapagos episode that's still ongoing in South America, but, for example, in the Mekong, where we've seen extremely concerning reports, especially in recent months, about the environmental harms of the upstream damming that Beijing has pursued, and pursued in a completely nontransparent and non-consultative way. And there is a – actually a specific CCCC angle to the Mekong environmental concern story given CCCC's role in would-be Chinese plans to blast and dredge the Mekong River, which could have potentially catastrophic effects on the downstream communities, the scores of millions of people whose livelihoods rely on the Mekong.

Now, recently there was a suspension of a multilateral agreement with CCCC to blast and dredge the Mekong, which is a kind of shift in policy that is welcome because this sort of dynamiting could cause irreversible environmental damage and provide really terrible harm to all the downstream communities in the Mekong region, even while serving perhaps the strategic interests of China. And so this is another way in which what we see in the South China Sea in terms of this bullying and coercion and the use of state-owned enterprises for the bullying and coercion of others is not at all limited to the South China Sea; it's characteristic of PRC foreign policy worldwide, certainly in the Indo-Pacific region, like in the Mekong, but really quite literally worldwide through the Belt and Road. And so these are among the concerns that we have and that are extremely widely shared, and then that is the foreign policy motivation for these actions and statements.

SENIOR COMMERCE OFFICIAL ONE: And this is [Senior Commerce Official One] from Commerce. So the presumption of denial does apply to all items subject to the EAR regardless of whether they're commodities, equipment, software, technology. Over.

MODERATOR: Second question, let's go to Kate O'Keeffe.


OPERATOR: Kate, your line is open.


OPERATOR: If you have your mute button on, please take it off.

QUESTION: Oh. I'm sorry, hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yeah, we got you. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, sorry about that. I was wondering if you could identify the number of executives that are slated for these visa restrictions, and if you know if these people or their families travel to the U.S. frequently. And then on the Commerce side, I was wondering, the 5 million in U.S. exports that these parties use, are those 5 million all subject to EAR, or is some of that 5 million not subject to EAR? And then what is the nature of these U.S.-origin goods? Like, will these entities be able to easily source that from non-U.S. suppliers? And then finally, for further impact of these entity listings, I'm wondering if you think they'll have a serious impact on these companies' operations here in the U.S., and if so, how. Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, I'll take the first question from the State side. There are dozens of individuals who've been identified with these visa ineligibilities, but of course, as I said, we're limited in what we're able to specify publicly. So I'll leave it there, and perhaps recommend following up with our Consular Affairs and other colleagues who work these visa policies most directly. Thanks.

SENIOR COMMERCE OFFICIAL ONE: So on the Commerce questions, the exports that we're aware of are all items that are subject to EAR. That's how we're aware of them, so we don't have visibility on exports from elsewhere that are not subject to our regulations. They all – I can't go into the details of them, but they all are lower-level items from an export control viewpoint, meaning they're not multilaterally controlled, so they are likely available from other sources as well, because, generally speaking, items that are not multilaterally controlled for export control purposes tend to be less sophisticated items and therefore tend to be available from other sources.

In terms of impact on any U.S. operations, this – the entity listings apply to things leaving the United States or being re-exported or transferred in-country, so the only impact on any U.S. operations of these entities would be certainly to the extent that they were making exports from the U.S. to their parents, if you will, those of course would be covered by these restrictions just as the same as the same items being exported from the U.S. by a nonaffiliated party would be covered. Over.

MODERATOR: Next question let's go to Robert Delaney.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes, go ahead, Robert.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing the call. The first question I had was just answered in the last answer. But another question I had was just regarding any – are there any CCCC subsidiaries that are either bidding for projects in the U.S. or have projects ongoing in the U.S. that will be affected by today's order? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, from the State side, certainly the visa ineligibilities will have an effect on the ability to travel of those who've been identified. For the commercial effects, I'll ask Commerce to elaborate.

SENIOR COMMERCE OFFICIAL ONE: So again, to the extent there are projects that they're involved in in the United States, if that involvement entails items leaving the United States to go back to these parties – for example, technology related to a project – then that would be subject to a license requirement. I don't know whether that circumstance exists in fact or not, but the license requirement applies, again, to any item subject to the EAR – hardware, software, materials, equipment, technology leaving the United States to go to one of these listed entities. Over.

MODERATOR: Next question let's go to Nick Schifrin.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) questions. I think the first one's to [Senior State Department Official]. You mentioned the low lights, if you will, of the CCCC's BRI contracts around the world. How much of this is really about the Belt and Road Initiative, designed to target BRI, and is this a new effort to try and target BRI? And then I think to both of you, a question on visibility for CCCC contracts around the world. Do you actually have confidence that you know when the CCCC makes a deal that would be covered under these sanctions, or are you relying on a kind of fear of possible sanctions to enforce this? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, Nick. Well, so the context for our actions today are just how we said. We, obviously, put a lot of work and thought into a South China Sea policy announcement that we made last month with respect to the maritime claims, and to the explaining further our views on the ways in which Beijing has been trampling on the sovereign rights of its neighbors in the South China Sea with respect to access to marine resources and the like. And that is the context in which we looked at the entities, including these PRC state-owned enterprises, who have played the leading role in the dredging, militarization, and coercion activities that have – in the South China Sea that have obviously been such a concern to China's neighbors and had such a destabilizing effect on the broader regional security environment. And so that is what has brought us to the entities that now face sanctions.

Now, the fact that these entities are – especially CCCC and its subsidiaries – are also so prominently involved in the "One Belt One Road" strategy and in the kind of wide range of predatory tactics that are part and parcel of the – of Beijing's Belt and Road is very much of interest to us. We think it is important for folks all around the world to understand this. It's obviously of interest in certain ways to the South China Sea coastal states who have the most direct link to things like the militarization of the Spratly outposts and the coercion on the water, but obviously countries all around the world are thinking through how to understand China's behavior and how to shape their relations with Beijing. And the "One Belt One Road"-type projects have obviously been an aspect of a story of great importance for several years, an aspect of the story that the U.S. Government and many other governments have been concerned about, have been trying to get a better understanding of, trying to generate greater transparency around, and often without success because of the fundamentally not just predatory generally, but opaque and secret way in which these PRC state enterprises operate.

And so we do think that the work, frankly, of shining light on these activities and on the association between the kind of bullying we see in the South China Sea and the kind of bullying that we see around debt-trap financing of ports around the world or the abuse of local workforces on port projects or railway projects around the world or secret financing terms – and this gets to your second question. Do we think we will have great insight into future contracts? Unfortunately, not.

Secret contracts are a major way that the Chinese – the state-owned enterprises operate all across their business and all across the Belt and Road. This is a concern that we hear from audiences – from counterparts all around the world. And so we think there is obviously a process that involves governments, it involves civil society and journalists getting a greater handle on these activities to include the contract terms, to include the product quality, the quality of these major infrastructure investments that countries are seeking, questions of fraud, corruption and bribery, predatory contracting, labor abuse, the military ties of these Chinese state-owned enterprises. There is a fundamental non-transparency problem which is seen in the activity generally, in the contracts in particular. It's also seen, by the way, in the capital market part of this story.

There was an episode about five years ago in Hong Kong where CCCC Dredging, one of the subsidiaries sanctioned today that had a particularly significant role in the dredging and militarization of the Spratly Island outposts, was going to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. And as has been reported in the press, they were unwilling, as it turned out, to make honest disclosures in their prospectus about their involvement in these South China Sea activities, and rather than make honest disclosures and be transparent, they withdrew the IPO.

So this sort of transparency question with respect to contracts, capital markets, and all the rest is certainly a concern and certainly something that we hope that governments and publics around the world will gain a better understanding of and scrutinize.

SENIOR COMMERCE OFFICIAL ONE: So the entity list restrictions are triggered essentially when one of the listed parties seeks to obtain or procure items that are subject to our regulations. So to the extent they would be doing that in support of a contract, then the license requirement kicks in. We utilized in this case, as well as all of our export controls, a variety of sources both classified and open source to determine when parties are seeking to evade or not comply or circumvent with our regulations. So it's not so much triggered by knowledge of contracts, but triggered by knowledge of essentially trade patterns and procurement efforts. Over.

MODERATOR: Okay. We'll try to take a couple more questions. Let's go now to Bill Gertz.

QUESTION: My question is: The Chinese military on Tuesday, according to Chinese press reports, conducted two flight tests of a DF-26 and DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles. I wondered if you had any comments on that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks for that. I've seen headlines just this morning as we've been scrambling on this effort, so I haven't seen nearly enough to be able to comment. I'd certainly point you to other colleagues, perhaps DOD, for that. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. Can we go to Pat Lucero?

QUESTION: Can you hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes, we can. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Great. It's actually Kat Lucero with MLex. My question is: How is this going – how does this play in the U.S.-China Phase One deal that Lighthizer and the vice premier of China said that things were going well?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This is State here. We obviously have an interest in the progress of the Phase One trade deal, including in the announcements made this week. Our relationship with China obviously has an important trade element, but it also has a lot of other elements, including the sorts of very serious concerns that we have with the way that China is acting internationally – bullying its neighbors, other Chinese Communist Party malign activities that Secretary Pompeo and others have been focused on and speaking out about.

These are all parts of the relationship. We try to have as constructive a relationship as possible to include in the trade space and otherwise, and we wish that Beijing would improve its conduct in the South China Sea and in many other areas, and that would make the relations all the more constructive.

SENIOR COMMERCE OFFICIAL ONE: And we at Commerce have taken any number of regulatory actions over the last several months that are national security and foreign policy-related, so these – we really take these actions separate from any negotiations on the trade pact. Over.

MODERATOR: Okay. We have time for one last question. Let's go to the line of Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: My question is for [Senior State Department Official]. [Senior State Department Official], could you talk a little bit more about the actual impact that you hope that these visa restrictions will have? The criticism, as I'm sure you're aware, is that you announce visa restrictions like this on almost a daily basis, and that they're largely useless because the people involved never have much intention of actually traveling to the U.S., and the result is that the U.S. comes off as looking like it's just beating its chest. So could you give us a sense of what you hope to be the actual real-world impact of announcing visa restrictions like this? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for that, Nick. I don't think I share the analysis kind of in the premise of the question, and especially not in cases that involve – that involve people who are in business. The – for international enterprises to be able to travel, including to the United States, is very often very important. And we are obviously concerned about the activities of these entities and are serious about beginning a process.

This is a first in a lot of ways in terms of U.S. sanctions on this kind of malign activity in the South China Sea, and as a mere start, we certainly think that it will have direct material effects, including on the ability of those identified to travel for business and for other purposes to the U.S. We note, by the way, that other countries can consider similar measures, and we think that that would be appropriate. The kind of concerns that we have about the South China Sea and other PRC malign activity are very widely shared and increasingly widely shared, and we know that other countries obviously are looking at scrutinizing their policies with respect to their diverse relationships with China in terms of business, academic exchange, visa, and much else.

And so this is something that we assess will have both an immediate effect and the very serious potential for a mounting effect over time, unless of course Beijing begins to choose to act in the South China Sea and toward its neighbors and toward our shared interests with a little more neighborliness and respect. Thanks.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks to our briefers, particularly our Commerce colleagues who joined us, and thanks to all of you who joined. As this is the end of the call the embargo on content is lifted. Have a great day.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list