Together, China and the United States have a formidable storehouse of knowledge and resources. They have the world’s biggest research and development budgets and science and technology workforces. A desire among their scientific communities for collaboration and cooperation is understandably strong. American efforts to decouple for reasons of security and to keep a leadership role ignores the benefits for both and ability to tackle shared and global challenges.
Beijing and Washington sealed an agreement on cooperation in science and technology when establishing diplomatic relations in 1979. There has since been robust collaboration with dozens of protocols and deals signed in a wide range of areas including health, environmental protection and climate change. While American scientists have long had a leading edge, their Chinese counterparts have been increasingly making technological contributions, foremost in recent years with 5G telecommunications, renewable energy and batteries. But rivalry sparked under former US president Donald Trump and continuing under Joe Biden is trying to irrevocably sever links, national security and defence being cited as reasons for unfounded accusations of espionage and intellectual property theft.
The US Justice Department’s announcement in February of the scrapping of Trump’s “China Initiative”, launched in 2018 to combat alleged economic espionage, should have marked the end of a policy that had targeted ethnic Chinese scientists and academics. Few spies were caught, the high-profile cases largely being dismissed or concluding with acquittals. But anti-Chinese sentiment is strong in Washington and even tougher action is being sought by lawmakers for scientific and technological decoupling. Many American scientists, researchers and academics have cut formal ties with Chinese counterparts and institutions for fear of being prosecuted.
But science and innovation and the thirst for knowledge have no borders, nor can a government lay claim to inventiveness and the people behind ideas. That is why despite the restrictions, American and Chinese researchers continue to work together, having found ways to get around the barriers. They are avoiding direct financial transactions and using alternative funding, utilising outsourced data and maintaining collaboration through multinational teams. One example is the development by Chinese scientists of an optical device to be mounted on a telescope in California that has a prominent role in astronomy to double its efficiency.
Joint research in astronomy and astrophysics has been long-standing and fruitful. Obvious areas for greater cooperation are the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Limiting scientific ties is in the interest of neither side.