Some military resale experts are warning that a proposal to ban the sale of Chinese-made products in military exchanges and commissaries would be “devastating,” especially to exchanges.
The proposal, an amendment introduced by Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., was approved by the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday.
“We cannot in good conscience fill post exchanges with products created with slave labor and sponsored by and benefiting financially the authoritarian regime of the Chinese Communist Party,” Green said during the markup of fiscal 2023 defense policy bill. In addition, he said, “The Chinese Communist Party believes they can steal our military technology without consequence. We need to show them that isn’t the case.
“The last thing we want to do is financially contribute to their tyranny. They’re laughing at the idea of American soldiers funding their schemes by filling the shelves of our PXs and BXs with their products.”
The proposal would prohibit the sale of goods in commissaries and exchanges that are manufactured in China, assembled in China or imported into the U.S. from China.
At least half of the products sold in exchanges, if not more, are made in China, noted Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif. While the idea of banning these products “sounds good and is patriotic,” he said, “it would have an adverse effect on our military families.” It would mean they would have to go out to stores in the civilian community to find the products they rely on that would no longer be sold in exchanges, he said.
The ban would affect only military stores, not stores in the civilian community. If a ban on Chinese-made products were to apply to civilian retailers outside the gate, industry figures indicate it would likely affect 80% to 90% of all retail goods sold, said Courtney Williams, spokeswoman for the Navy Exchange Service Command.
Walmart spokesman Payton McCormick said nearly two-thirds of the products Walmart sells in the U.S. are made, grown or assembled domestically. The company doesn’t break out sourcing data by country, but Walmart sources from many countries around the world.
It’s not clear whether the proposed legislation would ban any part of an item made in China — or only products made entirely in China.
Navy Exchanges “would face an impact of 50% in direct retail sales, strictly on those prohibited products alone,” said Williams. But in addition to that impact, there would likely be a far greater percentage of loss because the lack of those products would mean fewer customers.
Sometimes there are just no acceptable alternatives to products made in China. The lack of alternatives would also mean the potential removal of entire categories of items from the exchanges, not just one brand, Williams said.
“As a retailer, we offer freedom of choice for customers to purchase merchandise they want or need, and not all products desired by our customers are available from a U.S. manufacturer. The NEX serves a wide variety of military customers and we work very hard to carry a merchandise selection that appeals to this wide customer base,” Williams said.
“This practice of [lawmakers] doing to the exchanges and the troops what they don’t have the will or votes to do to the general citizenry has got to stop,” said Steve Rossetti, president of the American Logistics Association, an association representing companies that supply products to military stores.
The impact this proposal would have on military exchanges “isn’t significant, it’s devastating,” Rossetti said. “We should be feeding this golden goose instead of killing it.”
Rep. Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, and others said they support the concept of buying American products, but are concerned about the impact on the stores, especially making a move so quickly. Kahele said the move would negatively affect military families who depend on this benefit to purchase everyday household items, especially those in remote locations where there are already supply chain issues.
“I believe this would put our commissaries and exchanges at risk,” he said. “I’m all about buying American, but I don’t think we can flip the switch overnight.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, chairman of the committee, described the concept as “unworkable,” given the number of products made in China, “even though I’m not unsympathetic to the sentiment behind it.”
It’s not clear what impact the proposal would have on commissaries, although it would affect any over-the-counter health items coming from China, Rossetti said.
At Navy Exchanges, the ban would affect products across the board, especially clothing, footwear and baby items like strollers; housewares and home products made by Ninja, Cuisinart, Shark, Bissell, iRobot and Calphalon; home appliances like washers, dryers and refrigerators; entertainment electronics from Samsung; computers and phones from Apple; video game consoles by PlayStation and Xbox; bicycles and fitness equipment from Schwinn and Nordic Trak;, and seasonal merchandise like Christmas trees and Halloween costumes.
Navy Exchanges, like the other exchange systems, seek to provide quality goods and services at a savings to service members and their families. “Whenever possible, the NEX purchases goods made in America,” Williams said. “In fact, 40% or our Navy Pride products are purchased or assembled in America.”
The proposal will now have to be considered by the full House as part of the 2023 authorization bill. The House and Senate are expected to pass their separate authorization bill drafts sometime in the next month. They will then negotiate on a compromise authorization bill.
“I’d argue it’s not that hard to fill the shelves of our PXs with American-made goods,” said Rep. Mike Walz, R-Fla. “President Biden has put forward a Buy American provision. … If DoD needs to lead the way and be a little more difficult, then let’s do it.
“I’d be willing to bet they could do without some T-shirts or socks or other items if they know we have to stop funding our adversary,” he said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.