A landmark agreement underpinning decades of U.S.-China research cooperation narrowly escaped death this week after the Biden administration announced it would seek a brief extension to the pact, bucking pressure from Republican lawmakers and highlighting how scientific collaborations have emerged as a key flash point amid rising tensions.
A historic agreement underpinning decades U.S. China research cooperation narrowly escaped the death sentence this week when the Biden Administration announced that it would seek a short extension to the pact. This was despite pressures from Republican legislators and highlighted how scientific collaborations had become a major flashpoint amid rising tensions.
Since taking force in 1979, the U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement (STA) has set the norms for scientific collaboration between Washington and Beijing in areas ranging from air pollution to public health–as long as it is renewed, as it always has been roughly every five years. With its next expiration date looming on Sunday, a group of Republicans had urged the Biden administration to terminate the pact, part of a broader push as Washington zeroes in on the threats posed by China’s intellectual property theft and espionage.
By briefly extending the agreement for six months–rather than renewing it for another five-year period–experts and officials say the Biden administration may have more room to exert pressure on Beijing and negotiate amendments, such as boosting intellectual property protections. China attaches symbolic importance to the pact, said E. William Colglazier, a former science and technology advisor to the U.S. secretary of state currently at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Chinese officials have called for its continuation.
“The proposition behind a relatively short-term renewal would be to use that period to engage in intense discussions with the Chinese counterparts on any changes that the two sides could agree to that would strengthen the agreement,” John Holdren, a former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy currently at the Harvard Kennedy School, said on Tuesday. The main issue is to not abandon the agreement. Let’s not let it expire.”
If the 44-year-old pact expired, its end would deal yet another blow to already faltering U.S.-China scientific collaborations–and Washington’s own tech ambitions. As relations deteriorate, the resulting pressures have cascaded into the research arena, straining existing university partnerships and stifling academic exchanges. Confronted with a chillier research climate, a small–but growing–number of Chinese scientists are seeking opportunities outside the United States. The collapse of this agreement, experts warn, could accelerate these trends.
“Without the implicit permission that the existence of this overarching framework provides, there will be many institutions, many individuals, who would simply not engage with their Chinese counterparts because they would consider it something that the government does not consider a good thing to do,” Holdren said. “A lot of the interactions wouldn’t happen.”
Graham Webster, a research scholar at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, characterized the push to allow the STA to expire as an example of “boneheaded decoupling.” While there are very legitimate debates about what kind of restrictions should be implemented, he said, it’s not reasonable to assert that there are no benefits to U.S.-China collaborations in science and technology.
“There’s no real reckoning with the plusses and minuses of an individual interaction with China,” he said. “There’s only the assumption that if there’s a downside, we have to kill it.”
Science and technology agreements themselves are not unique; Washington has signed nearly 60 such pacts with other countries that effectively legitimize research collaborations, offering a broader framework for American researchers and institutions to engage with the world. Although an STA does not guarantee cooperation, it is a good way to get both parties’ blessings, said Mark Cohen, Asia IP Project Director at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology.
For Washington and Beijing the U.S. China STA represents a historic moment, as it is the first bilateral agreement between the two nations after normalizing relations. Ever since, the agreement has been continuously renewed–albeit with a lapse after China crushed the Tiananmen protests in 1989–and undergone multiple alterations.
“The STA is part of the foundational reopening of U.S.-China ties,” Webster said. “It’s become important because it’s the backdrop for the two countries to have many of their scientific and technological exchanges over the decades.”
This landscape has transformed considerably in recent decades as Beijing has revamped itself into a science research powerhouse and lawmakers ramp up efforts to combat Chinese IP theft and economic espionage. Science and technology collaborations are now entangled with economic and national security competition, and the challenges of balancing the costs and benefits.
“The policies and programs that [China’s] put in place, and its actions, really aren’t in line with open, transparent collaboration,” said Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, who noted how Beijing recently restricted access to its open academic publications. “Are we benefiting as much as we are giving?”
U.S. Reps. Mike Gallagher and Elise Stefanik have spearheaded the push to end the STA, penning a letter, alongside eight other Republican lawmakers, urging U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to allow the STA to expire and “put America’s national security first” in June. Former Trump officials Michael Kratsios and Erik Jacobs also echoed these calls in a recent op-ed, where they argued that the “agreement has become a conduit for Chinese malfeasance.”
“The evidence available suggests that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] will continue to look for opportunities to exploit partnerships organized under the STA to advance its military objectives to the greatest extent possible and, in some cases, to attempt to undermine American sovereignty,” the letter said. “The United States must stop fueling its own destruction.” China’s infamous spy balloon technology, for example, resembled the instrumented balloons used in a 2018 atmospheric science research partnership organized under the STA, the letter said.
Professors and other experts have pushed back in favor of the STA, citing the benefits derived from open research collaborations and the importance of having a framework for such exchanges. The STA encompasses collaboration in research areas ranging from climate change to medical research, all of which could be impacted if the pact breaks down.
“I hope that what we can do is separate out technology concerns from science,” said Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist at Villanova University. “Basic research is different than technology transfer or intellectual property or any of that stuff. That’s all very applied.”
Having an STA in place can help address intellectual property disputes that may result from bilateral collaboration, Cohen said. It can provide “a vehicle for talking about the issues that inevitably arise–even in a good relationship,” he said.
“For the world to be at peace, and to deal with things like climate change and deal with a pandemic, it’s going to require the United States and China cooperating,” Colglazier said. “Engagement in science is one lever.”
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