Let the 44-year-old US-China sci-tech pact evolve, not expire
Avoiding boneheaded decoupling
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If the Biden administration does not take action by this weekend, a foundational US-China agreement of the normalization era will expire, and scientific and technological (S&T) contacts between the two countries will likely decrease significantly.
The “Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Cooperation in Science and Technology” (the “Science and Technology Agreement,” or STA) was signed by President Jimmy Carter and China’s top leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979. It requires periodic renewal and is set to expire August 27.
The text of the STA does not read as particularly profound in 2023. The two sides agreed that “as appropriate,” the governments would “encourage and facilitate” official, academic, and other ties. They enumerated possible forms of “cooperation”: exchange of scientists, scholars, and students; exchange of research; joint projects; joint R&D; convenings; etc. The rest was left to the discretion and negotiation of the two sides going forward; they didn’t commit to do anything in specific. So far, so vague, but this was part of a profound opening of official and unofficial ties after the spark of Nixon and Mao, followed by several years of work toward diplomatic normalization.
Yet this June, 10 members of Congress wrote to the State Department, urging that the STA be allowed to expire: “We are concerned that the PRC has previously leveraged the STA to advance its military objectives and will continue to do so,” they wrote. Their basic argument is that, due to military-civil fusion, China may gain knowledge that could later be used against the United States if the agreement were to continue.
Meanwhile, many familiar with US-China S&T interaction from the academic, business, or government perspective argue the end of the STA would erect barriers to useful work while doing nothing to serve national security that can’t be done while it’s still in effect.
Ending STA, some of them argue, could significantly reduce US access to Chinese S&T efforts at a time when Chinese researchers are leading in some key areas. “China learned from us, and now they have experience that in some key fields exceeds ours,” Ken Lieberthal told The Wire China. “If we cut off learning from them in those areas, it’s just going to take us much longer to catch up.”
Avoiding boneheaded decoupling
The STA does not commit the United States to any specific cooperation. If the US government has concerns about national security, human rights, intellectual property, unfair competition, or frankly just politics, sub-agreements for specific projects “can be abrogated or allowed to expire without eliminating the umbrella agreement and losing the benefit of the subsequent S&T activities,” writes Villanova University Professor Deborah Seligsohn, who has worked on science issues at the US Embassy in Beijing.
Losing the agreement, on the other hand, puts a wide range of benefits for the United States in question.
US scientists say they have benefitted from access to data sets, advanced equipment, and teams of graduate students, as well as their Chinese colleagues’ good ideas, Karen Hao and Sha Hua reported in The Wall Street Journal. Already, some of those benefits have been eroded due to heightened suspicions and investigations since the Trump administration.
US scientists doing fieldwork in China have enjoyed protections. “When they’re working on projects, if they’re out collecting biological specimens in the boonies somewhere and the local government decides to get worried, a simple call to the National Science Foundation of China solves the problem,” Seligsohn told The Wire China.
Seligsohn lists useful outcomes of the agreement in a CSIS essay:
A years-long study that demonstrated the efficacy of folic acid supplements in preventing birth defects;
A influenza virus surveillance project that has improved the annual flu shot;
A reduction of air pollution in China that, in addition to providing obvious benefits to Chinese residents, cut back on smog on the US west coast;
Access to Chinese territory for natural scientists, since you can’t very easily study the geology/flora and fauna/etc. of places you can’t travel;
Recruiting grad students and post-docs encountered through joint work.
The case for letting the STA lapse this month comes in two forms. One accepts the above benefits and many others but argues that the agreement is unnecessary to capture them and/or that letting it lapse will give the US leverage in negotiating a better version with new protections. The testimonials of many scientists and policy practitioners who have spoken of the agreement’s benefits should weigh strongly against the proposition that the agreement is simply not necessary. The end of the STA would not mean all S&T cooperation halts, but it would likely introduce new friction and decrease useful interaction. The STA may now be a major element balancing against the advance of data security controls justified by national security but reaching, through explicit limits or risk aversion, across many sectors.
Meanwhile, the STA can be amended without letting it expire. Mark Cohen, an expert in Chinese intellectual property law at UC Berkeley and a former US Patent and Trademark Office representative in Beijing, writes that he would have opposed the STA’s 2018 renewal without IP protection modifications. As it happens, new IP language was indeed added. If the US government believes it needs new provisions to handle risks, whether concrete or political, it can work to add them to the agreement.
The second case for killing the STA is rooted in what I call boneheaded decoupling, and it’s advocated by the 10 members of Congress who wrote the letter mentioned above. This argument should not be ignored, at very least because it’s a political reality. The letter was led by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (the “Select Committee on the CCP,” or the “Select Committee on China,” depending on who you ask). But the Gallagher et al. argument is not a careful one.
They argue that, because some US-China S&T cooperation may have strengthened or may later strengthen national security-relevant capabilities in China, “The United States must stop fueling its own destruction. Letting the STA expire is a good first step.” Yet this would not be a first step in an effort to control technology transfer to China in national security–relevant areas. Export controls have been evolving for decades, especially acutely since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. More recently, the Biden administration introduced profound controls on advanced semiconductors and the means to produce them. This month, it moved to restrict investment in relevant fields in China. The FBI investigates research security as an ongoing priority. Numerous Chinese academic institutions deemed to be tied to the Chinese military have been added to blacklists, to say nothing of the wide range of Chinese companies banned from purchasing US-controlled technology.
Given that the STA doesn’t commit the United States to anything in specific, and given that there are many efforts in effect or being developed to restrict US-China ties where they are deemed risky, it is glaring that the Congressional letter does not consider whether the STA may actually have any benefits for the United States. This is the essence of boneheaded decoupling: Instead of identifying risks and seeking to mitigate them, mindful of plusses and minuses, it asserts a vague, general threat and seeks to cut ties regardless of any downsides.
The essence of de-risking is not being a bonehead
When I was in Beijing this summer, and in other conversations and readings, I found that Chinese observers generally either didn’t perceive a difference between “decoupling” (which the Biden administration always said it didn’t want, but which it seemed to be pursuing) and “de-risking” (the new term now embraced by the administration as a not-decoupling banner). On one level, if you believe what the US government has been doing amounts to “decoupling,” whatever that means to you, then, yes, “de-risking” is no different.
But, as I told my Chinese interlocutors, the Biden team is relatively careful with words. I believe it rejected “decoupling” language, because decoupling connotes a complete break. A locomotive is either coupled to the train, or it’s not; no middle ground will last long. De-risking, on the other hand, calls to mind the identification and mitigation of specific risks. If you own a home on a beach likely to erode with rising sea levels, you might want to de-risk by constructing a sea wall or moving; but that doesn’t mean owning a home anywhere should be rejected.
It’s beyond the scope of today’s post to analyze which patterns of US-China S&T interaction may entail risks to US interests that make them worth cutting off, but times have changed, and so have US government calculations about collaboration with China. Fair enough. Only a bonehead would ignore new risks and fail to ask whether earlier patterns make sense. But given the opportunity to consider the roles of the US and Chinese states and the institutions and individuals working in each country, and given the challenges facing humanity, only a bonehead would fail to consider the downsides when severing ties.
Allowing the STA to lapse could lead to the negotiation of a better agreement, but there is little reason to think this would happen. Bilateral ties are so sparse at the working level, and political impetus for positive interaction so minimal, that it is very hard to imagine a practical path toward productive new agreement. Instead, a US failure to renew while the Chinese side appears ready to negotiate amendments would likely lead to more uncertainty and interference in useful S&T activities in both countries—regardless of whether there is any risk that would justify it. If the Biden administration deems it prudent to let this basic framework for bilateral ties erode, it owes the US public an explanation.
NB: I’m not such a bonehead as to believe I understand every aspect of this situation. If you have or are aware of a stronger argument for letting the agreement die, drop me a line.
Adapting to today’s bilateral ties
As mentioned above, it’s hard to have great expectations for US-China diplomacy today. Although the two sides appear to be seeking a rejuvenation of pragmatic discussions and problem solving, there’s a long way to go to build constructive new patterns of interaction. Even the threat that the STA might expire is a sign of how rough things have gotten.
What this reveals is an urgent need for the two governments to figure out ways to durably protect existing mutually beneficial cooperation and build new areas where they can. Secretary Blinken in his major China policy speech last May repeated what has been a core Biden administration talking point: “we’ll compete with confidence; we’ll cooperate wherever we can; we’ll contest where we must. We do not see conflict. There’s no reason why our great nations cannot coexist peacefully, and share in and contribute to human progress together.”
Despite inclinations toward rivalry on both sides, they should work together in this spirit, at minimum, to cooperate where we must. Amending and improving the STA to solidify cooperation while navigating risks and competing confidently would be a major contribution.
Seligsohn, Deborah, “The Case for Renewing the U.S.-China S&T Cooperation Agreement,” CSIS, Aug. 4, 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/case-renewing-us-china-st-cooperation-agreement
Hao, Karen, and Sha Hua, “The U.S. Is Turning Away From Its Biggest Scientific Partner at a Precarious Time,” The Wall Street Journal, "Aug. 16, 2023. https://www.wsj.com/world/china/the-u-s-is-turning-away-from-its-biggest-scientific-partner-at-a-precarious-time-9fb9adaa
Cohen, Mark, “Renewing the US-China STA is Not the Question,” China IPR, Aug. 13, 2023. https://chinaipr.com/2023/08/13/renewing-the-us-china-sta-is-not-the-question/
Resources compiled by the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology on US-China Science and Technology Cooperation. https://www.law.berkeley.edu/research/bclt/bcltevents/us-china-scitech-agreement/resources/
Chen, Eliot, “The Science Split?” The Wire China, Aug. 20, 2023. https://www.thewirechina.com/2023/08/20/the-science-split-us-china-science-technology-agreement/
Gallagher, Mike, et al., Letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, June 27, 2023. https://selectcommitteeontheccp.house.gov/sites/evo-subsites/selectcommitteeontheccp.house.gov/files/evo-media-document/2023-06-27-letter-to-state-sta-agreement.pdf
About Here It Comes
Here it Comes is written by me, Graham Webster, a research scholar and editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center. It is the successor to my earlier newsletter efforts U.S.–China Week and Transpacifica. Here It Comes is an exploration of the onslaught of interactions between US-China relations, technology in China, and climate change. The opinions expressed here are my own, and I reserve the right to change my mind.