The Case for Renewing the U.S.-China S&T Cooperation Agreement

A Nearing Deadline

One of the most foundational agreements between the United States and China, the Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, has become controversial as of late.

Without administrative action, the S&T Agreement, signed in 1979, will expire on August 27. Despite the general nature of the framework, this agreement carries enormous historic significance. Discussions with officials in Beijing over the past few weeks have shown that they highly value this arrangement, as it was the first treaty reached between the United States and China after normalization. In fact, the actual first signatories were Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping. The agreement has been renewed every five years since its inception. There have been modifications since then, specifically a number of changes to intellectual property (IP) protections that were not even imagined when the treaty was first signed 44 years ago.

What’s at Stake

The U.S.-China S&T Cooperation Agreement is one of almost 60 such bilateral agreements the U.S. government has with other countries and 64 that the Chinese have. Both countries maintain such agreements with essentially all advanced scientific countries and dozens of developing nations. These agreements are routine because they facilitate standard interaction between countries’ scientific communities. By themselves they do not fund or require specific activity in any topic area; rather, they simply lay the groundwork for specific agreements under this umbrella on any topics selected through negotiations. Since the agreement was first signed in 1979 following the establishment of diplomatic relations, American and Chinese scientists have worked together through almost 100 protocols and annexes under the agreement.

No specific ones are required, and any that are of concern, whether for economic or national security reasons, can be abrogated or allowed to expire without eliminating the umbrella agreement and losing the benefit of the subsequent S&T activities.

The umbrella S&T agreement, though, is the specific prerequisite for government-to-government cooperation. All bilateral agreements in areas such as sharing health information and working together on climate change come under it. These do not require any funding move from one country to the other, and in recent years they rarely have involved the transfer of funds.

Beyond government-to-government cooperation, the agreement also states that the two countries will “facilitate, as appropriate, the development of contacts and cooperation between government agencies, universities, organizations, institutions, and other entities of both countries.” Thus, especially for China, the agreement covers not just specific government ties, but also the types of people-to-people connections and educational exchanges that Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed to promote with his counterparts during his visit to Beijing in June. There is a real risk that any such improvements, including access to key health information and the ability to train the United States’ next generation of China experts, will be put at risk if the agreement lapses.

Beijing’s Perspective

The Chinese would like to see the agreement renewed, and they have indicated a willingness to discuss any amendments the United States would like, as they have in the past on IP. Thus, if the United States would like to see a wording change to make clear all such cooperation is for peaceful purposes, or emphasize the importance of research integrity and values, such as peer review standards and transparency, these could be suggested and negotiated. The original agreement is quite short, and when issues have come up in the past, they have been resolved through amendments.

American Self-Interest

The United States should not extend the agreement because Beijing wants to, but rather because it is in the United States’ clear self-interest to do so.

Many specific S&T outcomes deeply beneficial to the United States and the rest of the world can be traced back to the creation of this agreement:

  • The birth defects study, which began in 1985 and ran through the 2000s, was one of the world’s largest cohort studies of 250,000 pregnant women and their babies; it demonstrated the efficacy of folic acid supplementation for preventing neural tube defects. Folic acid is now in many foods in the United States and around the world, preventing millions of stillbirths or lifelong birth defects. After determining the value of folic acid the study continued to look at the impact of other nutritional and environmental factors on mothers and babies for decades.
  • The U.S.-China influenza cooperation project, initiated in 2004, helped the Chinese increase its flu surveillance from a couple dozen to over 30,000 sites, and to develop their own lab into a World Health Organization coordinating center. As a result, the world has much better sampling for developing each year’s annual flu vaccine as well as better eyes out for the next possible pandemic influenza.
  • Scientists in fields from geology to paleontology to biology benefit from having access to the Chinese landmass. Over the decades thousands of collaborations have been facilitated that moved forward understanding of the earth (earthquakes, mountain ranges, great rivers), human origins (Inner Mongolia is one of the great areas for identifying dinosaurs), and the huge variety of flora and fauna in Asia to name a few. Social scientists have collaborated to understand areas from education to HIV/AIDS prevention. The United States loses access to data and to knowledgeable partners without this collaboration.
  • Many collaborations result in American scholars identifying top PhD candidates and post-docs for their labs. As of 2021, 74.4 percent of these students were staying in the United States, and their efforts have become integral to the great innovations achieved in U.S. universities, research organizations, and the private sector.

An Evolving S&T Relationship

Over the years the agreement has become more balanced in its execution, as China has advanced in both scientific expertise and in funds available to support it. While in the early years of the agreement, the learning was largely seen to be going one way, today scientists in the United States are just as likely to want to consult their Chinese colleagues for the latest information, and vice versa.

As noted above, the agreement has no funding obligations. In recent years much cooperative research has occurred without any funding of the other country’s work. The National Science Foundation has never been able to fund much in the way of international partners, and the largest new project under the Obama administration—the Clean Energy Research Center, which continued for part of the Trump administration—was based on each country funding its own side’s work. It is true that both Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health have always had the option to fund global work—this is not a China-specific aspect of their work, but rather a recognition that disease knows no boundaries, but even here, the portion of Chinese work that has gone into cooperative projects that are funded by the Chinese government has grown significantly over the past 20 years. Other agencies have had their own provisions, but in all cases, work funded in China has been based on a determination of U.S. national interest—preventing disease, reducing pollution, etc. Renewal does not commit funds, and the United States can certainly decide not to fund the Chinese side of joint work with likely little impact on the types of work that can be conducted.

An important aspect of this agreement is that it is for the support of open science—not proprietary or classified work in either country. This helps promote U.S. values regarding openness and transparency, and these values could be further codified in the agreement. Commercial work is not the purview of the agreement, which supports that of government and academics. The IP provisions already negotiated cover those rare instances where IP results from this type of work. As for business, U.S. companies no longer see IP protection as a major issue in their work in China, but in any case, businesses negotiate directly to protect their own interests. There is nothing in this agreement that impedes that in any way.

Congressional Anxieties

Some lawmakers in Congress are now pressuring the administration to scrap the agreement, suggesting that cooperation has benefited China at the United States’ expense, for example, by supporting the rise of China’s surveillance drone industry. Given that this is an umbrella agreement, getting rid of the entire arrangement would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The more practical approach would be to focus on those subsidiary annexes and arrangements that raise genuine concerns. While the agreement has been used less during the pandemic and China’s implementation of zero Covid, it provides the basis for what interactions we have been able to maintain, including some on health issues and food safety, and it provides the basis for the resumption of ties without having to restart negotiations from scratch.

High Rewards, Low Costs

While U.S.-China relations are relatively delicate these days, one way to stabilize them is through a better understanding of each other, a key benefit under the agreement. It is true that especially during Covid-19 the amount of activity under this agreement declined considerably. But there are already signs of renewed interest, especially in academic and business cooperation. The Chinese see all these areas as linked. And the United States may well want more government-to-government cooperation in areas like climate change and public health in the future. This agreement keeps all potential doors accessible. Failure to renew an agreement that commits the United States to nothing shuts many of those doors. Chinese contacts have said they will see letting the agreement lapse as an incredibly dangerous signal for the relationship as a whole. This agreement has enormous symbolic importance and offers some valuable protections for U.S. researchers. And it carries these advantages with no downsides since it does not commit the U.S. government to any specific activities.

Given all of this, the U.S.-China S&T agreement should not be allowed to lapse, and it should be renewed as it stands or with revisions negotiated by both parties.

Deborah Seligsohn is assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and senior associate (non-resident) in the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Deborah Seligsohn
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics