Oldest US-China science deal up in the air as Washington seeks to ‘amend terms’

Allowing a landmark US-China science research pact to lapse would be a loss for both countries, observers said, as Washington sought a six-month extension to the decades-old agreement due for renewal within days.

The 1979 Science and Technology Agreement was the first US-China accord to be signed after relations were normalised that year. It will expire on Sunday without administrative action to keep it alive.

The short-term extension would keep the STA in force as the US sought “authority to undertake negotiations to amend and strengthen [its] terms”, Reuters cited a US State Department spokesman as saying on Wednesday.

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However, this “does not commit the United States to a longer-term extension”, the spokesperson was quoted as saying.

Signed by then US president Jimmy Carter and Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the STA has so far been renewed about every five years, serving as an “umbrella agreement” for bilateral scientific and technological cooperation.

Chinese officials in Washington welcomed the announcement.

“As two major R&D countries, China and the United States should maintain contact and exchanges in science and technology,” a Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington told the Post in an email.

“The more-than-40-year history of China-US scientific and technological cooperation has fully proved that China-US exchanges and cooperation are mutually beneficial and have improved the well-being of the people of the two countries and the world at large,” he said.

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A Beijing-based science policy expert, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the Chinese scientific community would like to see the agreement renewed.

The STA had benefited both countries, the expert said. “China and the US have been cooperating in science and technology for more than 40 years and China has benefited a lot. The cooperation enhanced China’s overall scientific research level and its international research status.”

The uncertainty over the deal comes as the US seeks to reset China ties following some of their worst tensions in recent years – over issues including trade, human rights and hi-tech rivalry – while protecting national security.

Pang Zhongying, a chair professor in international political economy at Sichuan University in southeastern China, said the US intention to extend the agreement was “good news”.

“[This is because] the US has demonstrated they are willing to improve the bilateral relationship or maintain it,” Pang said, but conceded that there was still a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the STA.

Visitors take pictures of robot arms at the 2023 World Robot Conference in Beijing on August 16. Photo: AFP

He said that as the world’s top two economies, the US and China were both pivotal to global science and technology and should be interdependent in the sector.

“I hope the relevant departments in China and the US can negotiate actively because a termination of the agreement would be a loss for both countries.”

The US State Department’s short-term extension plan comes after a number of US lawmakers opposed the renewal of the 44-year-old deal, expressing concerns about China exploiting the collaboration to advance its military modernisation goals.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, 10 Republican members of Congress said evidence suggested that China would “continue to look for opportunities to exploit partnerships organised under the STA to advance its military objectives to the greatest extent possible and, in some cases, to attempt to undermine American sovereignty”.

However, some American scientists have argued that failure to renew the agreement would “directly and negatively” affect the US’ own research.

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In an open letter to US President Joe Biden and National Security Council members on Monday, two Stanford University professors said the STA had been of “enormous benefit” to the US, and that the nation should renew the accord because it was in its best interest.

“We can attest that cutting off ties with China would directly and negatively impact our own research, the work of our immediate colleagues, and/or the educational mission of our universities,” Steven Kivelson and Peter Michelson wrote in the letter.

Deborah Seligsohn, a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, also said the US should extend the STA because “it is in the United States’ clear self-interest to do so”.

The agreement had yielded many outcomes that had deeply benefited the US and the rest of the world, including cooperation on the study of birth defects, influenza, HIV/Aids prevention and tackling air pollution, Seligsohn wrote on the CSIS website earlier this month.

“American and Chinese scientists have worked together through almost 100 protocols and annexes under the agreement,” she wrote.

“The umbrella ... agreement is the specific prerequisite for government-to-government cooperation.”

China has expressed its willingness to renew the accord, with Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu saying in Washington in June that the US had been approached a year ago to discuss the renewal.

“As far as we know, the US side is still conducting an internal review on the renewal of the agreement,” Liu had said. “It is hoped that the US side will expedite the internal review before the expiration of the agreement.”

Additional reporting by Khushboo Razdan in New York and Hayley Wong

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