Their diplomatic relationship may be rocky, but at least the research collaboration is still good.

It’s China week in the White House, and even John Marburger is invited. Bush’s science adviser and the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology policy met with his Chinese counterpart, Xu Guanhua, to sign a protocol that extends the China-US Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement until 2011. (pdf)

President Carter and Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping initiated the agreement in 1979, but antecedents existed as early as President Nixon’s first attempts at diplomacy with Communist China in 1972.

“[The Cooperation Agreement is] one of the oldest aspects of US-Chinese relations,” said a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It has been the single constant in the US-China relation that has never dimmed. And there have been a lot of ups and downs, predictably, between the United States and China. At no time did our agreement ever falter.”

Benefits of this agreement have included the sharing of resources and manpower on upgrades to an electron-positron collider at China’s Institute of High Energy Physics, as well as research on Chinese pebble bed nuclear power reactors. Ongoing collaborations include research into infectious diseases like AIDS, SARS and avian flu.

The Agreement comes up for renewal every five years and is assessed, in the US, by the 11 technical agencies that benefit from it, including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation. In addition, Congress reviews the results of the Cooperation Agreement every two years, paying special attention to research that might compromise American military goals.

“Congress takes a very strict view of any relationship with China, particularly anything that will help China militarily, or could conceivably help them militarily,” said the official. “And you know, most science does have some military application. And as well, [there is] the general question of: Are we helping the Chinese become a more competitive global power by science and technology cooperation?”

But, he said, we have little to gain by not helping China. He quoted the former Secretary of Defense, William Perry, who said, “There’s no use in trying to keep the Chinese back. We just have to run faster.”

In this case, however, our goal may be to get on the right team before anyone beats us to it. “It’s better that we’re running with the Chinese rather than, say, [letting] the Europeans,” said the State Department source.

Originally published April 21, 2006

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