US extends science and technology agreement with China, buying time to renegotiate the deal

29 Aug 2023 | News

Washington makes last-minute decision to temporarily renew the deal for six months as it faces pressure to address concerns over research data restrictions and military use. Experts give Science|Business their views on what should change

US President Joe Biden (left) with general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping back in 2013. Photo: Flickr

The US has extended a historic science and technology agreement (STA) with China by six months, but now needs to renegotiate the deal to mollify concerns that it aids Beijing’s technological and military rise and fails to ensure a reciprocal research relationship.

Washington made a last-minute decision to temporarily renew the agreement, signed in 1979 after the countries normalised diplomatic relations, despite pressure from Republicans who want it scrapped.

“This short-term six-month extension will keep the agreement in force while we seek authority to undertake negotiations to amend and strengthen the terms of the STA. It does not commit the United States to a longer-term extension,” a State Department official told Reuters last week.

But exactly what changes will reassure US politicians are unclear, and renewal next year with an election looming could prove particularly fraught.

Brussels is currently facing a similar dilemma, hoping to preserve China ties in mutually beneficial areas like climate change while paring back more sensitive industrial and IT collaborations.

European Commission negotiations with Beijing over a new science and technology roadmap remain unresolved, with the EU cutting China out of certain Horizon Europe projects because of a lack of progress on agreeing common innovation rules.

So changes to the US-China agreement could have global implications as countries wary of Beijing seek to de-risk their collaborations.

Diplomatic survival

Originally signed by reforming Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping and US president Jimmy Carter, the agreement has survived 44 years of diplomatic ups and downs between Beijing and Washington, being renewed every five years apart from a brief lapse after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. It was even renewed in 2018 under the combative administration of Donald Trump.

But since then, broader tensions have ratchetted up even further over Beijing’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China is now challenging US scientific and technological dominance in multiple fields, with Washington and allies attempting to choke off access to leading edge semiconductors, for example, in response.

It’s not just US Republicans who have criticised the agreement. Some observers worry whether China is fairly sharing its scientific knowledge with the US. In April this year, Beijing closed some academic databases in its CNKI scientific paper portal to foreign scholars, citing national security. 

Beijing, meanwhile, has appeared keen to renew, with state media trumpeting the benefits of research collaboration with the US, and the Chinese ambassador in Washington meeting US science organisations in the run up to the agreement’s expiry. Over 1,000 US scientists also signed a letter in favour of renewal.

‘More important than with other countries’

The agreement itself is a relatively brief document, with 11 articles ticking off very broad terms of engagement on reciprocity, entry and exit of scientists, publication of results and a joint commission to oversee cooperation, for example. Since it was signed, the two sides have added a more comprehensive annex on intellectual property, addressing one of the US's chief complaints about cooperation with China. 

“The US-China science and technology agreement is non-binding and non-specific,” said Jenny Lee, a professor of higher education at the University of Arizona. “It’s a largely a gesture of goodwill between the two countries to work together on scientific advancement in ways that benefit both countries.”

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Beijing sees the agreement as providing a framework for all collaboration with the US, not just government-to-government work that such deals normally regulate, said Deborah Seligsohn, a political scientist a Villanova University and former US science counsellor to China.

“These agreements are much more important with China than with other countries,” she said. “The Chinese see all science as coming under these umbrella agreements.” So if the agreement was scrapped, it puts at risk academic collaborations that Beijing has no interest in supporting, she warned.

And getting rid of the agreement would also be the latest “negative signal” to Chinese scientists, who have long strengthened the US’s science system through immigration, Seligsohn said.

How to renegotiate the agreement

Still, even supporters of the agreement see areas where it could be updated. Both countries’ scientists have recently had problems accessing each other’s government and academic websites and data, said Seligsohn. “There’s an opportunity here to solve that for scholars in both places.”

The agreement could also stipulate that collaborative research is for peaceful purposes, she added, to assuage critics who worry China will feed any joint advances into its military R&D system.

In addition, since Beijing and Washington last renegotiated their agreement, there has been “a great swell of energy” on creating openness in science, pointed out Caroline Wagner, an expert on US-China science relations at Ohio State University.

Some of these new guidelines, for example UNESCO’s recommendations on open science, could now be used as the basis for cooperation, she suggested.

What’s more, since the mid-2010s, pan-national science organisations like the International Science Council and the Global Research Council have grown in strength and could help adjudicate any US-China deal, she argued, helping to smooth out any disputes about misuse of research and the peaceful use of results.

And finally, the US could also simply devote more resources to tracking more closely the “progress, problems, and sensitivities” of government-to-government research programmes, suggested John Holdren, former science adviser to Barack Obama, who will advise the current administration on renegotiation.

This would be “one of the most effective measures” to help ensure collaboration was running smoothly, and could be done by the US unilaterally without changing the agreement.

US ‘fuelling its own destruction’

However, it’s unclear if these changes would mollify the criticisms of Republicans, who now argue that even basic research cooperation could help China achieve national security goals.

In an open letter in June, ten Republican Congressmen took aim at agricultural research cooperation, for example, pointing out that president Xi Jinping has called for the country to become more agriculturally self-reliant, and linking the issue to national security.

“It should come as no surprise that the PRC will exploit civilian research partnerships for military purposes to the greatest extent possible,” they wrote. “The United States must stop fueling its own destruction. Letting the STA expire is a good first step.”

And on the day the Biden administration announced it would extend the agreement, Republican Congressman Andy Barr introduced legislation that would give Congress far more oversight over the agreement with China, mandating risk assessments and monitoring mechanisms.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up