The Dunce Award and the Diplomatic Disaster

Ian Oxnevad

CounterCurrent: Week of 10/16/2023

CounterCurrent: China Edition is a monthly newsletter of the National Association of Scholars uncovering and highlighting the effects of the Chinese Communist Party's influence on American education.

Education is geopolitical, and America just flunked a test in its class on Chinese diplomacy. Rather than letting it lapse and die a natural diplomatic death in August, the Biden administration opted to extend the 44-year-old Science and Technology Agreement (STA) with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Second perhaps to the handling of the Iran hostage crisis, the agreement penned in 1979 has proven to be one of the most damaging and lasting diplomatic bungles of the Carter administration, and continues to bedevil the U.S. to this day. 

The STA’s brevity, only containing 11 Articles, should not understate its importance. The agreement accedes to cooperation in the fields of “agriculture, energy, space, health environment, earth science, engineering,” as well as “scholarly exchange.” Article 3 incorporates agreed-upon cooperation through mutual exchanges of researchers, scientists, scholars, students, and “technological information and documentation.” This agreement has been successfully renewed every 5 years, and to disastrous effect. 

According to estimates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Chinese espionage costs the U.S. economy between $225 and $600 billion annually. For comparison, the U.S. has sent roughly $70 billion to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of the country last year. China’s targets include intellectual property and “trade secrets,” and goods stolen from U.S. companies then counterfeited in China. Not included in the FBI’s assessment of Chinese thievery is the priceless cost of lost fundamental research. 

Fundamental research (i.e., subjects and studies designed to advance overall knowledge and expertise) is the fundamental business of academia. The otherwise basic importance of research obfuscates its value despite its lack of proprietary protection. It is fundamental research that trains the next generation of scientists and scholars, and is the elemental building block of building human capital and empowering new discoveries. 

For years, the U.S. has fed communist China research through joint academic programs and hundreds of thousands of Chinese international students enrolled at American colleges and universities. Over the last decade alone, American academia has educated roughly 300,000 Chinese students annually. By field, students from China have overwhelmingly gravitated to computer science (22.2%), engineering (17.5%), and business management (16.6%). These statistics matter not only to academia, but for national security. 

Analysts from across America's political landscape, as well as observers abroad, note how China is closing the gap to reach military parity with the U.S.. America’s technological military superiority has been a target of Beijing’s strategic planners over the last two decades. In 2015, China launched its now 145,000 strong “Strategic Support Force” devoted to assisting warfighting in space and cyberspace, as well as conducting electronic warfare. In some areas, Beijing not only has reached parity with the U.S., but has surpassed it. 

Classrooms matter, even in the ostensibly distant world of hypersonic missile technology. For example, China currently leads Russia in its hypersonic missile capabilities. U.S. air defense systems, such as the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense system, and Patriot batteries, are only partially effective at defending against hypersonic weapons. Earlier this year, New York’s Alfred University shuttered its Confucius Institute after it was revealed that the university was also conducting federally-funded hypersonic missile research. 

Back in 2018, FBI director Christopher Wray described the espionage risk that U.S.-China academic ties pose to national security. Wray noted that China’s use of “nontraditional collectors, especially in the academic setting, whether its professors, scientists, students” pose an espionage risk. Wray stated that this risk is indeed “across basically every discipline.” It is clear that agreements like the recently extended STA have fueled China’s rise and ability to challenge U.S. values and interests. 

Popular culture seems to fathom the importance of fundamental research and academia to geopolitical tectonics, even if Washington policymakers cannot. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s recent box office hit Oppenheimer vividly depicts the effect that research and academic ties play in shaping geopolitical events.  

The continual renewal of the STA is akin to a student repeating and failing the same course every 5 years. Data, policy analysis, and precedent all demonstrate why the STA should not be renewed as China has encroached far enough—to the point of threatening American interests. Our policymakers would certainly fail a hypothetical course in the politics of education. Alarmingly, these same policymakers seem to have little understanding of both science, history, and have failed the course. 

Until next time.

Photo by Rafik Wahba on Unsplash

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