US-China Technological Cooperation: Treading A Pragmatic Path – Analysis

By Yi Wang

Before the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, there were hardly any formal relations between the two countries, and the level of mutual distrust was high. During that time, scientific cooperation was considered to be a relatively fast way to break the deadlock in establishing contact between the two peoples. On January 31, 1979, then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping signed the U.S.-China Scientific and Technological Cooperation Agreement. 45 years later, this agreement expired on February 27, 2024, without renewal or extension by both parties. This outcome has sparked numerous discussions and policy debates not only in the U.S. and China, but also in Europe and Asia.

Whether to “terminate” or “renew” the agreement, the U.S. is still struggling to make up its mind if it wants to divorce with China. Hence, China needs to approach this rationally, and its policy decision should focus on clarifying the fundamental reasons for the differences, eliminating ambiguity in understanding between the two sides, jointly negotiating solutions, and seeking sustainable partnership.

In my opinion, regardless of whether to move forward or backward, both sides need to clearly and decisively answer three questions: is there a necessity to cooperate? If so, is there the will to do so? How can the cooperation be done?

The U.S. and its European allies have deep concerns about China’s competitiveness in the field of technology, especially the latter’s “civil-military fusion” strategy, transfer of core technologies, concentration of innovation resources to support state-owned enterprises, intellectual property infringement, and inadequate legal regulations. They believe that these aspects may pose immeasurable risks to their national security and other regions of the world. Therefore, the governments of Western developed countries have taken strong measures to block cooperation and investment by China in the field of technology with foreign countries in recent years.

From prohibiting the sale of chips to China and replacing Chinese-made cranes in American ports, autonomous driving has undoubtedly become a new battleground in the technological competition between the U.S. and China. The U.S. government is investigating China-connected vehicles on the grounds of national security risks. The White House press statement on February 29this year stated that such vehicles are connected to smartphones, navigation systems, and critical infrastructure; the companies that manufacture them may collect sensitive data from U.S. citizens and infrastructure and transmit it to the Chinese government. The U.S. is concerned about the threat posed by China and losing its technological and military leadership positions. The “yard and fence” strategy set up by the United States in key technological areas has expanded to non-traditional security areas.

On January 17, the European Parliament passed a resolution pointing out that key infrastructure such as transportation, ports, telecommunications networks, rare metals, and undersea cables in Europe are vulnerable to Chinese influence. It called on EU member states to quickly implement an expanded regulatory framework to exclude entities that may be involved in this strategy. In another resolution concerning port infrastructure, Members of the European Parliament warned that currently, 10% of Europe’s maritime infrastructure is owned by Chinese groups. They urged the EU and its member states to urgently assess the risks associated with maritime infrastructure involving China and third countries and to impose mandatory supervision on foreign direct investment to prevent suspicious investments.

Concerns over national security, economic sovereignty, and fair competition have led to escalating trade tensions between the West and China, resulting in increasingly numerous restrictions on the use of Chinese smart technology. Evidently, this is a form of “politicization” and “securitization”.

Meanwhile, issues such as climate change, pandemics, food crises, food safety, deepfake AI, and the proliferation of false information on the internet are causing widespread dissatisfaction, discomfort, and anxiety among people everywhere, leading to a palpable increase in feelings of discontent and insecurity in daily life. The world is witnessing a regression in human rights.

In terms of data privacy, digital security, and copyright, American technology companies may not be faultless. In January 2024, Mark Zuckerberg and Snap CEO Evan Spiegel apologized to the families of victims of social media at a Senate hearing. Meta, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, Google, YouTube, and other social media platforms pose risks of abusing personal data, no longer being innocent perceived by internet users.

Science and technology should have been powerful weapons for humanity to overcome disasters. Regardless of where we are, we all desire technological support to strengthen our confidence as we move towards an unknown future. Yet, amidst the pursuit of technology advance, the divisions and contradictions between groups are deepening, and hatred more pronounced. In case that technological progress does not make humanity happier, then the world must change.

“Science plays an enormous unseen role in keeping international avenues of contact open, even when political doors slam shut”, pointed out in an article published in Scientific American October last year, and the same article calls for keeping cooperation channels between the U.S. and China open.

In the process of modernization, governments of various countries have promised to improve people’s livelihoods and well-being of humans as their goals for the long term. Faced with multiple severe challenges and common crises worldwide, governance leaders of all countries cannot solve them alone with their own efforts. It requires cooperative actions to enhance the effectiveness of problem-solving. Establishing partnerships is an important part of the international sustainable development agenda, providing opportunities for countries to contribute skills and resources to world development.

There is still much consensus among the research, academic, and business communities in Europe and the U.S. that without China’s participation in scientific and technological cooperation, the world’s most pressing challenges cannot be addressed.

The survival and development of humanity rely on conditions such as the environment, resources, and energy. With social evolution, everyone can take use of resources to expand the space for equal development, rather than competing against one another at all costs for limited opportunities for survival.

Evidently, U.S.-China scientific and technological cooperation carries the responsibility and expectations for improvement on the global development circumstances.

From the perspective of partnership, I believe that the priority should be the following points, which can be options in policy formulation.

The foremost thing is, countries can appoint their own national “science and technology affairs envoys”. In our current world, technology is deeply integrated with industry. The coverage of technology policies has hence extended to the entire industrial chain. This trend not only requires countries to strengthen international coordination and communication in technology policies but should also consider establishing dedicated positions, upgrading administrative levels, and expanding corresponding decision-making powers.

John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, as the “climate envoys” of the U.S. and China respectively, have contributed to the promotion of multilateral climate processes with their cross-century friendship and cooperative efforts, earning respect and praise from the world and setting a good example for improving U.S.-China relations. Appointing national representatives may be a way to explore new methods for more effectively addressing technological issues that hinder global progress.

Secondly, in terms of developing cooperation, efforts should be made to establish accountability mechanisms, create an open trade and investment environment, and continuously enhance policy transparency, while striking a balance between protecting domestic interests and ensuring fair participation in the global market.

From basic research to industrial transformation, the path of technological innovation can be a long and arduous. It is still the necessity for the Chinese to work harder, to enhance their abilities to transform scientific and technological achievements, promote the equalization of advanced technologies applied to basic public services in China, rectify unreasonable rules and regulations, strengthen China’s institutional framework of intellectual property protection systems, minimize IP infringement, and resolve loopholes in market regulation.

Furthermore, dialogue, discussions and public debates between foreign research institutions and think tanks in different countries should be encouraged. This is to ensure the freedom of movement of innovative elements. At the same time, scientific and technological exchange activities between cities and regions would be increased, while multifaceted connections among social organizations, educational institutions and scholars have become crucial. Specific actions could include planning jointly technological research in topics of interest, collaborating on scientific investigations and training, expanding collaborative networks, sharing best practices and expert advice, and cross-border data sharing to enhance research quality and impact.

Additionally, it is essential to introduce courses on intellectual property rights and scientific ethics knowledge in primary and secondary school education in various countries, and this is especially true for China.

Science and technology, fundamentally, serve for a better human life, also touch upon cognitive boundaries and a variety of stakeholders. For example, breakthroughs in frontier areas such as the internet, artificial intelligence, and genome editing unleash technological dividends on one hand, while on the other hand, they may create new problems.

Hence, it is insufficient to merely claim the technological high ground for success. Public discussion should also place its emphasis on adhering to technological ethics and legal awareness. Thereby, guiding technology for the greater good. When children and young adults acquire the understanding of integrity of scientific research and the rule of law, they could bring positive changes in future innovation.

Collaboration is based on trust. The technological cooperation between China with the U.S., as well as with other countries, require attention to cultural and legal disparities. Indeed, China is addressing multiple challenges, and certain inadequacies, such as awareness of intellectual property and legal compliance issues, which take time to resolve, or at least to improve. If both sides can ensure effective mobilization of resources, enhance mutual understanding in various ways, give importance to such partnerships and communication.

Each one creates more vitality for innovation to make the world a better place.

Yi Wang is a researcher at ANBOUND