The Biden administration is seeking a short-term extension to a landmark science and technology agreement with China despite pressure from some U.S. lawmakers who say Beijing could exploit it to gain a security and military advantage.
A six-month extension to the Science and Technology Agreement, or STA, will keep the pact in force as the U.S. seeks “authority to undertake negotiations to amend and strengthen the terms,” a State Department spokesperson told NBC News on Wednesday.
Signed in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, the STA was the first accord between the two countries after they normalized diplomatic relations. It has historically been renewed roughly every five years and was due to lapse this weekend.
A lapse in the pact would not only imperil government-to-government collaboration in vital areas such as climate change and public health, it would also inhibit academic cooperation between the world’s two leading economies, supporters have warned.
The STA serves as the umbrella agreement for the science and technology relationship between the U.S. and Chinese governments, said Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant political science professor at Villanova University.
“If it were to go away, not only would it impede government-to-government cooperation, but it would also put other science cooperation at risk,” said Seligsohn, a former environment, science, technology and health counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
China also considers it the enabling document for all other science cooperation with the U.S., including with academic and research institutions.
But the agreement’s renewal faced resistance from lawmakers who argue that collaboration on technologies in sensitive fields could advance China’s military modernization. In June, 10 Republican members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him not to renew.
“We are clear-eyed to the challenges posed by the PRC’s national strategies on science and technology, Beijing’s actions in this space, and the threat they pose to U.S. national security and intellectual property and are dedicated to protecting the interests of the American people,” the State Department spokesperson said.
Evidence suggests that 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,” they wrote in the letter, whose signatories included Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the chair of the House Republican Conference, and Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the chair of the House select committee on China.
“The United States must stop fueling its own destruction. Letting the STA expire is a good first step,” they added.
In a separate letter to Blinken last week, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., also objected to the agreement’s renewal, citing the Chinese government’s human rights violations, lack of transparency during the Covid-19 pandemic and “disregard for intellectual property rights.”
“Cooperation with a nation so contrary to American values is untenable,” he wrote.
The Biden administration’s plans aren’t unprecedented. Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. sought a similar short-term extension to renegotiate the terms of an annex of the agreement to strengthen intellectual property protections.
The State Department spokesperson said it was aware of the issues involved with working with China in the are of science and technology.
“We are clear-eyed to the challenges posed by the PRC’s national strategies on science and technology, Beijing’s actions in this space, and the threat they pose to U.S. national security and intellectual property and are dedicated to protecting the interests of the American people,” they said, referring to the People’s Republic of China by its acronym.
Some of the opposition to the agreement’s renewal also stems from the massive strides China has made in science and technology since it was signed. Since 2019, Chinese researchers have published a greater proportion of the world’s top 1% most cited scientific papers than those from any other country, according to Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University.
The Biden administration faces a difficult balancing act in its approach to China as it strives to safeguard U.S. national security without jeopardizing the overall relationship. Last year President Joe Biden announced a measure aimed at cutting China off from advanced semiconductor chips, and this month he ordered restrictions on U.S. investment in high-tech industries in China such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
But the White House has also tried to reduce tensions with Beijing over issues such as trade, human rights and the status of Taiwan, sending a series of senior U.S. officials to China in recent months, including Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and, next week, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Chinese officials had indicated that they would like to see the STA renewed. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum last month, China’s ambassador to the United States, Xie Feng, said renewing the agreement was a small but concrete way to start improving relations between the two countries.
The agreement plays an “irreplaceable” role in promoting scientific and technological cooperation and exchanges, said Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Not renewing it, he said, would suggest the U.S. “is indeed launching a new Cold War against China.”
U.S.-China cooperation in science and technology has been “mutually beneficial” and the agreement should be renewed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Allowing the agreement to lapse would signal to Chinese officials that the U.S. is less interested in “de-risking” the relationship than “genuine decoupling of everything,” said Seligsohn, who recently returned from a trip to China.
In addition, she said, it would further alienate Chinese scientists and graduate students, growing numbers of whom have already been leaving the U.S. after years of government prosecutions of Chinese academics accused of espionage that upended lives and careers but mostly came up empty.
“If we fail to renew this agreement, it really sends a message to those young scientists and potential scientists — the brains of the future — that the U.S. is not interested in working in them,” she said.
Supporters of the agreement point to numerous instances of U.S.-China collaboration that have improved the lives of Americans.
It was a large-scale study in China, for example, that revealed the crucial role of folic acid supplements in reducing the risk of spina bifida and other neural tube defects, which women today are encouraged to take well before they become pregnant.
With the help of the Environmental Protection Agency, China has greatly reduced local air pollution, much of which was blowing across the Pacific and blanketing the West Coast.
Enhanced influenza surveillance in China, made possible by support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has also informed the development of annual flu vaccines around the world in what Seligsohn called a “huge success story.”