US–China Scientific Collaboration Agreement in Limbo
China and the United States are at the beginning of negotiations to renew a decades-old science and technology cooperation agreement that lapsed last month.
Many U.S. academics have expressed support for continuing the agreement, but some Republican politicians have urged the Biden administration to abandon it altogether, citing concerns that China will use collaboratively developed technology against the U.S.
Just before the agreement expired on Aug. 27, the Biden administration indicated it would seek a six-month extension to buy time to “amend and strengthen” the agreement before formally renewing it. Chinese officials also stated their interest in extending the agreement, which has been renewed roughly every five years since 1979.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed on Aug. 29 that the agreement had lapsed but stressed the U.S. and China have previously signed extensions after letting the deal expire. The spokesperson added that the extension would ideally be back-dated to Aug. 27. The department did not reply to inquiries this week on whether the short-term extension has since been secured.
Last minute and retroactive extensions to this agreement have happened in the past. During the Trump administration, for example, the U.S. and China retroactively extended the agreement two times before they ultimately negotiated a five-year renewal with new terms related to intellectual property protection.
Despite these new terms, some Republican officials now believe the agreement should come to an immediate end. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, a group of 10 House Republicans alleged that China continues to exploit civilian research partnerships for military purposes. They asserted, for instance, that balloon technology developed through a 2018 collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and China’s Meteorological Administration is similar to that of spy balloons China used to surveil U.S. military sites.
“The evidence available suggests that the People’s Republic of China will continue to look for opportunities to exploit partnerships organized under the [agreement] to advance its military objectives to the greatest extent possible,” they wrote.
In an op-ed published by The Hill this week, Alexander Gray, who was chief of staff for the National Security Council during the Trump administration, argued that the Biden administration should allow the agreement to lapse and focus instead on drawing up agreements with its allies.
“Whereas U.S. scientists, in urging renewal of the science and technology agreement, view Chinese scientists as potential collaborators on projects of universal value, the Chinese Communist Party sees such cooperation as furthering its own governing objectives, generally at the expense of U.S. national interests,” wrote Gray.
Among the advocacy efforts in support of the agreement was an Aug. 21 letter to President Joe Biden organized by Stanford University physics professors Steven Kivelson and Peter Michelson, which was signed by more than a thousand scientists. In the letter, they acknowledged there are “legitimate national security concerns that require the United States, at times, to limit access to certain research and information.” They stressed, though, that fundamental academic research is generally published openly and does not require the same protections as classified or proprietary research.
“The benefits to the United States and to the world of robust and open research collaboration and exchanges of information and people between the United States and China has been and continues to be enormous — every effort should be made to maintain such exchanges,” they wrote.
Kivelson and Michelson have previously called on the U.S. government to recognize the benefits of scientific collaboration with China. In a 2022 op-ed, they urged U.S. officials to begin “repairing the damage” caused by the Justice Department’s China Initiative, which had recently been reorientated and renamed. The initiative was widely criticized for pursuing criminal cases against faculty who allegedly failed to disclose connections they maintained with universities in China. Kivelson and Michaelson argued the initiative has had a lasting chilling effect on Chinese scientists and students looking to come to the U.S.
An interruption of the agreement is not expected to immediately impact existing scientific collaborations between researchers in the U.S. and China, nor explicitly prevent the establishment of new partnerships, according to Caroline Wagner, a professor of public affairs at Ohio State University. The delay could, though, have a negative impact on collaboration in the long-term by sending a negative message to Chinese scientists about the willingness of the U.S. to cooperate, she said.
The U.S. currently has around 60 bilateral scientific collaboration agreements with countries that it partners with in research, but an agreement is not a prerequisite for collaboration. Many scientists in international research partnerships may be completely unaware of the existence of these agreements, said Wagner.
Although there is usually no money attached to these agreements, Wagner argued that they hold value in establishing shared values and approaches to research, as well as setting the intent and desire for international collaboration.
“Norms of behavior that are common in the West, such as openness, reciprocity, reproducing results, are not the same everywhere,” she said. She observed that in the case of China the agreement has been helpful in explicitly stating shared expectations of research collaboration and that it also has historical significance.
“There was little to no scientific relationship with China until this agreement was signed,” Wagner said. “A lot of collaborative activity was built under that umbrella, so it remains an important document.”