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Monday Morning Meeting on “Debates on US-China Science and Technology Agreement”

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  • May 20, 2024
    Monday Morning Meeting

    On 20 May 2024, Dr. Opangmeren Jamir of the East Asia Centre delivered a talk during the Monday Morning Meeting on “Debates on US-China Science and Technology Agreement.” The meeting was moderated by Commodore Abhay Singh (Retd), Research Fellow at MP-IDSA. Scholars of the institute were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    The United States-China relationship has gone through several ups and downs during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, impacted variously by the legacies of imperialism, world war and superpower competition between the Soviet Union and the US at a global scale. As China now emerges as a peer competitor of the US and attempts to surpass the latter in the field of science and technology (S&T), it is important to understand the historical and cognitive foundations underlying the Chinese conception of science, its application to collaboration with the US commencing from the 1970s and its continued relevance today under the rule of Xi Jinping. Dr. Opangmeren Jamir’s presentation attempts to address just such a lacuna in the understanding of China’s push to unleash the ‘new productive forces’ of science and technology so that it may outstrip the US in the quest to provide an alternative technology hub for emerging economies.

    Detailed Report

    The meeting was called to order by Cmde. Abhay Singh (Retd.), who introduced the Speaker and delivered short introductory remarks on the topic under discussion. He laid the groundwork for the Speaker’s remarks by articulating the challenge posed by China’s growth in technological prowess, and the apprehensions this has caused in Western strategic circles. He pointed out several pessimistic findings from Institutions of repute such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), whose work he cited to highlight how the Western powers face an imminent loss of their competitive edge in 33 of 44 key sectors where China already has or will have a strong lead in the near future. He also noted that in the current context, technological advancement in the form of an ‘innovation marathon’ will determine the course of our global future. He also briefly introduced the US-China Science and Technology Agreement of 1979, and outlined its current status. He then invited the Speaker to commence his remarks.

    Dr. Jamir began his talk by providing a background of the current state of the US-China Science and Technology Agreement, namely, that it has been extended for a short term of six months, so that the agreement is in force while negotiations continue, though a formal declaration of extension is pending. He then outlined the key features of his presentation, stating that the intention would be to focus on historical and technical background of US-China collaboration in S&T. He then took the audience through a theoretical overview of various normative understandings of S&T as a form of national power. In particular, he cited Adam Smith’s conception of a ‘division of labour’, Joseph Schumpeter’s conception of ‘creative destruction’ of industries and innovation and Susan Strange’s idea of ‘scientific knowledge as power’ whereby states with robust research and development (R&D) capacities are deemed to have the most power.

    Following this theoretical exposition, Dr. Jamir introduced the audience to the history of science policy in China before the takeover of the country by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949. Here he discussed in some detail the 1911 Revolution which toppled the declining Qing Empire, as well as the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which aimed to reform China into a modern, prosperous and democratic state free of the harmful impacts of Western imperialism. In order to achieve these goals, the leaders of the May Fourth Movement looked broadly to both ‘Mr. Democracy’ as well as ‘Mr. Science’ as fundamental pillars on which a strong China would be built. This led in 1928 to the formation of the setting up of premier academic societies such as the Academica Sinica, as well as the reform of the education system according to American models, as the Republic of China attempted to execute nation-building projects. He thus highlighted that the Chinese have always conceived of science instrumentally, that is, as a means to achieve a strong state, rather than as a noble pursuit in and of itself.

    As China fell to the Communists in 1949, this background led the CPC to proclaim that only science could ‘save China’. Dr. Jamir pointed to two pivotal events which shaped science policy after the CPC’s takeover, until the late 1970s: the replacement of the Soviet Union with the US as the preferred model of educational emulation, and the scars left by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when the regime itself unleashed a wave of suspicion and mistrust against scientific authorities. He spoke at length on the impact of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the irreparable harm it caused to scientific progress in China for over two decades, as first he and then the Gang of Four encouraged students to revolt against their Western-educated teachers, condemned and persecuted them as ‘rightists’ and ‘capitalist roaders’ and fostered an environment of hostility against all practitioners of science.  

    It was only after 1978 that the context for US-China scientific cooperation became clear, as Deng Xiaoping channelled China’s energies into the ‘Four Modernisations’, which removed Soviet influences from Chinese scientific education and restored the normative significance of Western models. The signing of the US-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement in 1979 thus marked a sea change in China’s scientific progress, as it firmly established the importance of science as an article of faith within the CPC’s worldview. Driven by a desire to not repeat the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, Deng and his successors up to and including Xi Jinping continued to encourage scientific cooperation with US in order to develop China into the powerhouse it is today.

    Dr. Jamir concluded his lecture by pondering the question of whether the US and China would be better off collaborating or competing, especially as their trade frictions continue to intensify and cautious delinking seems the order of the day. In this regard, he cited Wang Huning, who in a 1992 publication pointed out that the US could only be ‘defeated’ by being surpassed in S&T. Thus, there is a need to be wary of sharing dual use, critical and emerging technologies, while maintaining robust cooperation on pressing issues such as climate change mitigation, space exploration and knowledge production.

    Questions and Answers

    Before opening the floor to the audience for Q&A, Cmde. Singh asked Dr. Jamir to elucidate the drivers of change in China’s S&T policy post-Cultural Revolution, and whether a specific point could be identified when imitation of Western models shifted to indigenous innovation. Dr. Jamir answered that the seeds of reform were already present in the late Qing empire, almost seven decades prior to the Cultural Revolution’s termination, but the cumulative effects of the ‘century of humiliation’ by Western powers as well as the disastrous policies adopted in the initial years of the People’s Republic led to a thorough rethinking of S&T policy.

    Dr. Swasti Rao asked about the sectors where the US-China Agreement currently being negotiated is deadlocked, and whether Xi Jinping’s leadership plays a role. Dr. Jamir answered that areas of deadlock were mainly confined to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. As for Xi’s role, Dr. Jamir noted that each leader of China after Deng has attempted to put their own imprimatur on S&T policy, and Xi’s contribution, the ‘New Prosperity Theory’, essentially sets entrepreneurs free to innovate indigenously in order to break the deadlock faced due to geopolitical headwinds.

    This report was prepared by Dr. Arnab Dasgupta, Research Analyst, East Asia Centre.