The imminent expiration of the U.S.-China Science and Technology Agreement (STA) on August 27 presents the Biden administration with a critical opportunity to protect America’s innovative edge from the Chinese Communist Party and to ensure continued American leadership in emerging technologies. Though initially conceived with good intentions to foster bilateral cooperation, over time the agreement has become a conduit for Chinese malfeasance, siphoning off valuable U.S. intellectual property, technology, and research and development, and should be allowed to expire.
The agreement’s roots trace back to a more optimistic era when an idealistic Washington hoped that engaging with China’s scientists and researchers might moderate the totalitarian impulses of the CCP regime. The STA, signed by President Jimmy Carter and China’s Deng Xiaoping in January 1979, outlines a variety of areas of potential cooperation, including joint research programs and the exchange of scientists and scholars. Four decades on, with copious evidence of Chinese theft and espionage accumulating, those hopes seem profoundly naive.
Consider just some of the ways U.S. taxpayer funds and R&D resources have been exploited to abet Beijing’s relentless technology acquisition strategy under the false pretenses of the STA framework: More than a decade ago, NASA’s engagement with China on sensitive aeronautics research and technology so alarmed Congress over potential military applications that they statutorily banned NASA from conducting such joint projects absent security clearance. Cooperative aerospace and atmospheric monitoring programs lent Chinese engineers valuable expertise, only for advanced surveillance balloons to sail across the United States earlier this year. Even the National Science Foundation, which bankrolls nearly a quarter of all basic research at America’s universities, finds itself so inundated with investigations into foreign influence among its grantees that its inspector general confesses her office is unable to keep pace.
The STA’s vaunted vision of robust reciprocal academic exchange has never materialized. This year, over 300,000 Chinese students filled U.S. university campuses, whereas draconian CCP restrictions have slashed the number of Americans studying in China to just around 350—down from a peak of nearly 15,000 in 2011. Meanwhile, CCP-funded programs like the Confucius Institutes and the Thousand Talents Plan continue to extend Beijing’s influence, technology transfer, and intelligence-gathering activities into the American academy.
Defenders of the STA protest that the agreement still carries important symbolic and diplomatic weight, and serves as a useful general framework facilitating technological exchange. Yet these purported benefits ring hollow. Senior officials have not gathered for a meeting under the formal auspices of the STA since 2016.
In 2018, despite a sincere U.S. attempt to salvage the STA by adding a new intellectual property annex, the CCP’s exploitative behavior persisted unchecked, prompting the State Department to conclude two years later that “the PRC ignores international norms and exploits the openness of the United States and other nations for its own benefit, harming the integrity and security of the international research enterprise.”
Preserving an open-ended declaration of scientific and technological collaboration with Beijing seems profoundly counterproductive when considering how the fields of greatest mutual interest are also dual-use by nature, ripe for diversion to totalitarian and military ends by the CCP’s civil-military fusion strategy. Advanced biotechnology can enable bioweapons development, artificial intelligence will push new frontiers in the CCP’s oppressive A.I.-backed surveillance state, and quantum computing threatens to compromise America’s most closely-held national secrets.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
International science and technology cooperation is important. The United States boasts nearly 60 science and technology cooperation agreements with allies and partners across the democratic world. Many of these agreements have fostered fruitful research partnerships that strengthen American innovation and competitiveness. The STA’s expiration will help refocus our cutting-edge R&D investments into venues where they are far less vulnerable to being used against the U.S. national interest.
Allowing the STA to lapse will deliver a strong diplomatic signal to Beijing that the era of accommodating CCP technology theft and bad-faith dealings is over. It will force CCP leaders to acknowledge that their own hostile actions, provocations, and refusals to abide by international rules and norms have extinguished the basis for open science cooperation enjoyed decades ago. A strong and confident America should not shrink from compelling this reckoning.
The door need not be shut permanently on future collaboration with Chinese scientists and researchers who share our aims of expanding human knowledge and who reject totalitarian technology ends. But restoring a prudent balance that protects U.S. national advantages will first require fundamental changes in the CCP’s exploitative policies. By allowing an agreement that no longer serves our interests to expire, President Biden can strike an important blow for safeguarding American innovation and competitiveness where we need it most.