Landmark US-China science deal’s renewal hinges on personal safety, reciprocity concerns: scholar

New issues that were not anticipated by either Washington or Beijing when they signed a landmark agreement four decades ago are now central to ongoing negotiations over the pact’s future, according to a China scholar who has discussed the subject with mainland officials.

Renewed every five years since then-US president Jimmy Carter and Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping signed it in 1979, the US-China Science and Technology agreement was the first bilateral pact finalised between the countries after they established diplomatic ties.

“The whole dynamic of the things ... changed, and therefore, the negotiation is all very different than it had been ever before,” Denis Simon, the former executive vice- chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China, told the Post.

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As the two countries’ heated geopolitical rivalry threatens years-long scientific collaboration, “there is no renewal if there’s no compromise”, Simon said, and this was “just the fundamental situation where we are”.

The STA laid out the terms for government-to-government cooperation in science, opening the way for academic and corporate interactions. Over the years, joint efforts under the deal have yielded positive outcomes in the study of birth defects, influenza, air pollution and HIV/Aids.

Last year, the US State Department confirmed it was extending the agreement for six months, just days before it was to expire on August 27.

Since then, at least two rounds of discussions have taken place between the two sides. Last week, a senior State Department official confirmed that a Chinese delegation was in Washington for more talks.

The US would only renew the agreement if the negotiations were able to produce a “stronger” pact to address concerns over national interests, he said.

US deems more Chinese tech companies ‘military’ and a national security risk

Simon, now affiliated with the Institute for China-America Studies, a Washington-based think tank, highlighted personal safety as a recurring issue in the negotiations.

The US was “very concerned” about American scientific personnel being detained or not being able to return home from China, he said, adding: “I think there’s no compromise on that issue.”

Washington “wants these certain guarantees that there will not be so-called whimsical application” of the new security regulations, and in the event of a diplomatic rift on issues like Taiwan, that “the personal safety of people in China is not put in jeopardy”.

Another sticking point was reciprocity, Simon said. If China is able to have “almost unencumbered access” to the US side, that would not square with Beijing’s recently revised anti-espionage law restricting access to certain archives and data.

Former US president and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been a vocal critic of China, and his presidency marked a change in Washington’s long-held positions towards the Asian giant. Photo: Reuters

As a result, “it’s very hard to see how a reciprocal relationship might ensue”.

In a related vein, data security has proved vexing. Simon described the US as not wanting a situation in which American scientists visit China for a year on a joint project and are later prohibited from taking their data back home.

And given prevailing fears over Beijing’s use of technology in modernising its military, Washington has focused on a “good intentions clause” in the agreement that calls for both sides to promise to “play by the rules”.

These “overarching principles” were never a concern before Donald Trump’s presidency began in 2017, ushering in a new view of China that took account of the country’s economic and scientific rise, said Simon.

China science deal must address US national security concerns: State Department

In November, a group of Republican lawmakers, including the chair of the House select committee on competition with China, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, demanded that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suspend the STA negotiations.

“Amid rumours that the Biden administration will try to quietly extend the Science and Technology agreement between the US and China, my colleagues and I request they pause any negotiations as Congress fine-tunes legislation in the best interest of the American people,” Gallagher said in a letter at the time.

In recent weeks, American officials have sounded less-than-optimistic about the STA’s future. Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, last month said a renewal was “not a given”, citing national security concerns.

The US would need to decide on how far national security would extend, Simon said, asking itself, “‘are we being purposely difficult about this, at the risk of losing the benefits from the synergies that can be captured from the collaboration?’”.

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