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Legal Alerts and News Updates

U.S.-China Science Agreement at Risk of Expiring

  • The U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, first agreed to in 1979, has been temporarily extended until February 2024.

  • It’s unclear whether both countries will reach agreement prior to the deadline, particularly given the United States’ concerns related to Chinese misappropriation of U.S. scientific and technological innovation.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping signed the U.S. China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement (U.S.-China STA) to provide opportunities for science and technology cooperation to the benefit of both countries. (Globally, the United States has 60 bilateral and multilateral STAs.) While initially conceived as part of the United States’ strategy to build ties with China and counter Soviet influence, U.S. strategy later emphasized working collaboratively with China to advance scientific discovery and address global challenges in areas such as health, energy, and climate. In more recent years, however, the United States has grown increasingly concerned about protecting its scientific and technological developments from misappropriation by China, now viewed as a geopolitical rival. A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report describes how some believe that the U.S.-China STA has failed to reflect changes in U.S. strategy over the past several decades or U.S. concerns over China’s science and technology practices and its increasing capabilities.


Due in large part to these concerns, for the first time since its inception the continuation of the U.S.-China STA appears to be at risk. The two countries failed to reach agreement by the August 27, 2023 deadline, and although the agreement has now been temporarily extended for another six months, the U.S. Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said recently that “it’s not a given that [the United States and China] are going to agree.” Negotiations will take place over the next couple of months, according to Ambassador Burns.


Benefits and Risks


The CRS report, which summarizes the arguments of those who support renewing the agreement as well as those who oppose it, notes that “U.S. benefits and risks of joint research with China are different from those in 1979 due to the dramatic growth in China’s S&T capabilities.”  For example, “[s]ome say that the decentralized and open approach to S&T that characterizes the U.S. research ecosystem, while beneficial to U.S. innovation, has hindered the U.S. ability to develop a strategic approach to S&T ties with China, effectively oversee joint research, and restrict China from gaining sensitive capabilities.”  Others emphasize that China, given its significant advances in science and technology, now “has more to offer U.S. researchers and . . . cutting off access could affect U.S. [science and technology] advances.” Many experts on both sides agree, however, that the U.S.-China STA needs to be modernized to reflect scientific advances in areas such as AI, biotechnology, machine learning, and quantum mechanics.


Moving forward, the United States has numerous options, including renewal using the existing language, renewal with modified language, renegotiation, or expiration. Alternatively, the United States could work with allies to develop a common approach to scientific partnerships with China.


Implications for U.S. Higher Education Institutions


The CRS report notes that “[e]xperts debate the extent to which canceling the U.S.-China STA would affect U.S.-China [science and technology] ties, including sub-agreements and federally funded research.” Either way, U.S. higher education institutions will likely want to monitor whether the agreement is renewed and, if it is, whether and how it is modified. 


As a broad, non-binding agreement, there is unlikely to be any immediate impact on existing research collaborations with China if the U.S.-China STA is not renewed. However, as a political scientist quoted in a recent article noted, letting the agreement lapse could “put[] at risk academic collaborations that Beijing has no interest in supporting” and deter Chinese scientists from studying and working in the United States.


Finally, the report also notes that whether the U.S.-China STA is renewed and/or modified, Congress may still address research concerns with China through the legislative process. For U.S. higher education institutions with strong research partnerships with Chinese entities and scientists, monitoring these and similar developments is an important part of understanding the U.S.-China research relationship and its trajectory.

U.S.-China Science Agreement at Risk of Expiring
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