top of page

Walking the Talk: Should Biden Govt Cancel Decades Old S&T Pact With China?

Uday Nitin Patil

9 August 2023

​The USA-China Science and Technology Agreement (STA), first agreed in 1979, is up for renewal by 27 August. The agreement, which has been renewed every five years since, has met with strong opposition from various quarters in the U.S. legislature and even in the executive branches. As yet, there has been no clear insight into the Joe Biden administration’s intent regarding the extension. With elections due next year, how the USA deals with this issue is shaping up as a fascinating flashpoint regarding how tough President Biden is willing to be on China.

Walking the Talk: Should Biden Govt Cancel Decades Old S&T Pact With China?

August 2023 is shaping up to be a significant month in the ongoing USA-China geopolitical competition. While there have been noteworthy visits of high-ranking officials from the USA to China over the past couple of months, the easing of tensions between the two sides could well hinge on the renewal or repeal of a landmark, decades-old agreement later this month.

The USA-China Science and Technology Agreement (STA), first agreed in 1979, is up for renewal by 27 August. The State Department has so far refrained from providing an insight into the Joe Biden administration’s intent regarding the extension. However, in certain quarters of the U.S. legislature, there is strong opposition towards renewing the deal. What the administration chooses to do is shaping up as a fascinating flashpoint regarding how tough President Biden is willing to be on China.

The Context

In recent months, the USA has been attempting to navigate the complex challenges in its relationship with China which soured dramatically following last year's visit of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan. Things took a further turn for the worse following the incident earlier this year involving a Chinese spy balloon. The Biden administration has been exerting considerable effort to re-engage Beijing in negotiations, aiming to restore a sense of normalcy in bilateral relations. However, domestic developments within the USA could potentially impact these endeavours of the government.

The STA has become a key source of concern, particularly among Republican lawmakers in the USA. In June 2023, Representative Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin and a group of nine fellow Republican House members requested the State Department to permit the lapse of the agreement. The STA has been renewed by the USA every five years since 1979, when diplomatic ties were first established between the two countries. The most recent renewal occurred in 2018, during the tenure of a Republican President in Donald Trump. So what is causing the current call to abrogate the agreement?

Why is the STA important?

Since 1979, the STA has provided a platform for scientists in the USA and China to engage in collaborative efforts spanning fields like physics, chemistry and health. According to John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Barack Obama administration, the signing of the STA represented a type of authorization that facilitated cooperation between laboratories, universities and scientists.

The agreement not only sanctioned the idea of collaboration but also conferred respectability upon it. Holdren highlights that enhanced collaboration has played a crucial role in nurturing personal connections between American and Chinese scientists. Many of these individuals later assumed senior positions in their respective governments and utilised these established relationships to address science-related matters of shared concern.

The STA, along with the agreements between federal research agencies in both countries, has streamlined the exchange of information encompassing areas such as satellites, climate studies, seismic activity, fusion research and investigations into subatomic particles. Within the framework of the STA, federal agencies in the United States have orchestrated a wide array of research programs, projects, centres, meetings and knowledge exchanges across domains such as chemistry, physics, climate science, energy research, agriculture and health. This cooperative framework has played a pivotal role in China’s shift away from ozone-depleting CFCs, and facilitated exchange of critical influenza data that was instrumental in the development of annual vaccines.

Current Developments

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 10 Republican Congressmen led by Mike Gallagher, the chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on China, articulated their opposition to the STA renewal. Their concerns stem from a particular incident in February 2023, wherein Beijing was accused of utilising a “balloon technology” to spy on U.S. military sites. The STA came under the cross-hairs of Gallagher and co since the spy balloon was reminiscent of a technology developed through an STA collaborative initiative between the China Meteorological Administration and the USA's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Furthermore, the lawmakers accused China of using academic researchers, industrial espionage and forced technology transfers to secure an upper hand in pivotal technologies. This, in turn, is believed to be bolstering the modernization efforts of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Citing these factors, the legislators built a case against extending the STA, asserting that China employs an array of strategies to establish a technological advantage and to reinforce the PLA.

Meanwhile, advocates for extending the agreement contend that discontinuing the STA would hinder collaborative efforts in both academic and commercial domains. They emphasise that the absence of the agreement would result in the USA losing valuable insights into China’s technological advancements. While the prevailing inclination in the USA had been along these lines for nearly all of the STA's past renewals, such views are increasingly getting drowned out.

There is a growing faction of officials and legislators who are becoming more sceptical about the relevance of science and technology cooperation in light of the intensifying competition between the two nations. Reports suggest differing opinions are emerging within the U.S. government, including the State Department. These opinions range from renewing the agreement, letting it expire, or renegotiating it to incorporate safeguards against industrial espionage and mandating reciprocal data exchanges.

U.S. officials are said to believe that attempting to renegotiate the agreement could disrupt bilateral ties, which are delicately poised as is. Meanwhile, U.S. businesses have consistently raised concerns about China’s policies mandating technology transfer. Moreover, experts have raised alarms about state-backed theft, encompassing a range of items from Monsanto’s crop seeds to proprietary information about NASA’s space shuttle designs.

On the other hand, observations made by the Global Times suggest that China already views the current dynamics driven by the USA’s containment strategy as having significantly eroded the STA. China has long seen the agreement as a cornerstone for fostering collaborative endeavours in high technology sectors. The Communist Party of China’s mouthpiece argues that repealing the agreement would carry symbolic implications, suggesting a lack of genuine commitment by the U.S. towards fostering mutually beneficial cooperation.

Renewal Maybe Better

China has been grappling with the repercussions of the chip export embargo that the U.S. introduced in October 2022. Chinese experts have expressed their discontent with these measures, characterising them as “technological warfare”. Should the extension of the STA not materialise, it will further contribute to the catalogue of U.S. actions categorised as technological confrontations by Beijing.

Amid the myriad factors shaping the present state of relations, a decision not to extend the STA is likely to adversely impact peace and stability. While the recent visits by high-level U.S. delegations may not have yielded groundbreaking outcomes, they have established a foundation for potential dialogue as well as cooperation. Therefore, allowing the STA to lapse at this juncture would be detrimental to the status of the bilateral relationship. Considering that a worsening of ties between the USA and China is likely to have systemic effects that could potentially draw in other powers such as India, it may be best for the moment to not stir the hornet’s nest any further.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Uday Nitin Patil


Uday is a Dr. T. M. A. Pai Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. His Ph.D. research is focused on the post-Cold War American policy-making towards China. His other research interests are US Grand strategy and great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.


Share Your ThoughtsBe the first to write a comment.

Kindly refrain from using abusive language or hate speech. Comments will be moderated.

bottom of page