Over the weekend, President Obama notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) that he intended to allow the issuance of temporary munitions export licenses for C-130 cargo aircraft for use in response to oil spills at sea.

On the surface, this measure appears non-controversial. It is not, at least from what is stated, a decision to allow the sale of C-130 aircraft to China. Rather, the Administration can claim, quite reasonably, that the waiver is only to allow C-130 aircraft, of any nationality, to land in China, as necessary, to provide assistance with oil spills. One can hardly argue that simply allowing an aircraft to land and refuel or take on oil dispersal chemicals is a leak of high technology.

But this justification is extremely puzzling, in light of the July oil spill in the Dalian area of China. That spill, officially involving 1500 metric tons but with higher estimates from environmental organizations, covered 430 km, took six days to cap, and required the mobilization of thousands of workers for the clean-up. Yet, there is no evidence that China sought foreign assistance to aid in clean-up efforts, much less that existing export controls affected the provision of support.

In all likelihood, this decision was undertaken in order to give Secretary of Defense Gates something to show when he met with his counterpart General Liang Guanglie. If so, it is a hat-trick of bad ideas: it cheapens export controls, suggesting they are more a matter of political whim than national security; it betrays the good start the President has made in implementing badly needed export control reform; and it is unlikely to generate much from the Chinese, since this is not something that the Chinese were especially concerned about.

Worst of all, to announce this decision literally as the Chinese placed the wife of the recent Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo under house arrest raises real questions about the kind of message that the Administration is sending. One would think that the Administration, with no Chinese oil spills to worry about, would hold off on such a measure, if only as a courtesy extended from one Nobel Peace Prize winner to another.