The Biden administration’s decision to request a six-month extension of the expiring U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement (STA) follows a noisy campaign by U.S. scientists urging renewal of the landmark 1979 accord.
To hear the scientists tell it, the STA has contributed to nearly every significant scientific breakthrough over the last 40 years.
In reality, the agreement codifies the disadvantageous terms of the immediate post-recognition U.S.-China relationship, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how China uses global science cooperation and sends a contradictory message about the seriousness with which the administration is approaching U.S.-China economic security issues.
Signed by the Carter administration as the first major bilateral agreement following U.S. diplomatic recognition of China, the STA reflects the geopolitical reality of the late 1970s. As scholars like Dr. Michael Pillsbury, writing in “The Hundred Year Marathon,” have noted, the U.S. provided extraordinary technological transfer, both civilian and military, to China in the years immediately following diplomatic recognition, with the goal of accelerating Chinese development as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.
Needless to say, the geopolitical dynamics of U.S.-China relations have dramatically altered in the decades since.
China’s cooperation with the U.S. on science matters must be viewed through the prism of China’s science-industrial complex, which exists not to advance the general welfare at home or abroad but rather the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whereas U.S. scientists, in urging renewal of the STA, view Chinese scientists as potential collaborators on projects of universal value, the CCP sees such cooperation as furthering its own governing objectives, generally at the expense of U.S. national interests.
The CCP’s goals are not mysterious and opaque. They are enshrined in a pyramidal structure of official papers and doctrines, from economic Five Year Plans to the Made in China blueprint for technology dominance to the doctrine of Military-Civil Fusion, whereby there is no distinction between military and civilian research and development.
In the view of the Chinese leadership, all economic and scientific activities conducted by Chinese nationals occur for the benefit of the CCP and its ultimate objective of regime survival and regional and global hegemony.
The current STA manifestly fails to understand both the CCP’s incorporation of science into its broader geopolitical objectives and also its weaponization of technology for social control and the extension of authoritarian governance. The CCP has constructed the world’s most comprehensive surveillance state, targeting both its domestic population and individuals of Chinese descent abroad, regardless of citizenship.
In crafting the world’s first techno-authoritarian dictatorship, Beijing has marshaled cutting-edge technology to suppress minority ethnic and religious groups, stifle dissent and perpetuate CCP rule. This is hardly fertile ground for technology cooperation with the United States.
China certainly does not need the STA to gain access to U.S. technologies — it has already done that, through intellectual property theft and industrial espionage constituting the “greatest transfer of wealth in human history,” in the words of former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander. The Trump administration’s White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy laid out the CCP playbook in a comprehensive report titled “China’s Strategies of Economic Aggression,” making clear that large-scale pilfering of American technological innovations is not simply a minor component of China’s approach to such matters but rather a foundational principal of its economic strategy.
The Biden administration should allow the STA to lapse and replace it with reinvigorated science and technology cooperation agreements with key allies and partners in sectors critical to the future of American economic and national security, from critical minerals to space to artificial intelligence. Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and India represent the future of innovation in the technologies of the 21st century; far better for the United States to strengthen cooperation with democratic allies sharing our interests and values than extend an STA that emboldens an authoritarian regime with a distorted view of the purposes of scientific advancement.
While individual cooperation between U.S. and Chinese scientists can serve productive goals, the objectives of the CCP in this area are inherently antithetical to those of the United States and its allies.
The Republican candidates for president should pledge to withdraw from the STA on their first day in office. Doing so would be in keeping with American interests and values and allow the next administration to prioritize science and technology advancements that support economic and human advancement, not the survival and dominance of the Chinese Communist Party.
Alexander B. Gray, a senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, served as deputy assistant to the president and chief of staff of the White House National Security Council (2019-21) and special assistant to the president for the defense industrial base (2017-18).
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