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‘Strategic Competition Act’ takes aim at collaborative exchanges with China

The Senate bill would turn all the positive things about Washington-Beijing competition, and cooperation, on its head.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

This is the fourth installment in a multi-part Responsible Statecraft series on the Strategic Competition Act (S. 1169), a bill under consideration that would effectively constitute a declaration of a Cold War on China by the US Congress. The introduction to this series critiquing the overall approach of the bill can be read here, followed by a second installment on Taiwan, and a third installment on North Korea. 

The recent trend in both the legislative and executive branches in framing educational exchanges, international research collaboration, and technology development as part of a zero-sum competition with China is alarming, unnecessary, and may well hurt America’s own interests.

To begin with, the Strategic Competition Act currently under consideration on  Capitol Hill could be detrimental to educational exchanges and research collaboration between the United States and other countries. Section 138 of the bill would require that if a U.S. institution of higher education receives any gift that equals or exceeds $1,000,000 from a foreign person or enters into a contract that equals or exceeds $1,000,000 with a foreign person, the institution would be obligated to disclose the gift or contract, which would be subject to a review by federal agencies, including the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States. 

Although the bill specifies that gifts or contracts in question should be those which are related to “research, development, or production of critical technologies” and provide the foreign person(s) “potential access to any material nonpublic technical information,” or are “restricted or conditional” in nature that “establishes control,” the provision could do more harm than good should it be adopted.

Since CFIUS’s role is to review investments in order to “determine the effect of such transactions on the national security of the United States,” this provision would treat educational exchanges as potential national security threats. CFIUS is not well-suited to understanding the nature of international educational exchanges and research collaboration, so although such ties may have national security implications in some circumstances, a CFIUS review would be a blunt and ill-suited tool that would threaten the openness that is essential for academic freedom and innovation. 

Moreover, this bill would make a sweeping requirement for U.S. institutions of higher education to disclose gifts and contracts equal or over $1,000,000 from foreign persons – not just those from China. Although such rules should indeed apply to any countries on a nondiscriminatory basis, this illustrates how excessive anxiety about ties with China also have negative implications for international exchange more generally. This requirement would put a substantial administrative burden on U.S. universities and research institutions to file paperwork for foreign gifts and contracts that fall under the requirement. The review process could be protracted without much certainty of approval. As such, the requirement would likely have a chilling effect on U.S. universities and research institutions’ acceptance of foreign gifts or entry into international collaboration involving foreign funding in the future. 

This would have major negative consequences, as foreign donations and internationally funded research collaboration have been essential to U.S. universities and research institutions. This has become especially true as federal research funding has witnessed big cuts over the past years — including in the field of biomedical research, the importance of which cannot be overstated in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global efforts to develop vaccines. Restoring and expanding federal research funding would thus be a far better approach than draconian limits on foreign educational exchange.

This trend of treating education and technology development in a zero-sum fashion is equally pronounced in the executive branch. When addressing a joint session of Congress on April 28, President Joe Biden called for expanding federal investment in technological research and development. This commitment in and of itself is laudable and much needed for America to remain the world’s high-tech leader. However, Biden rationalizes his tech policy agenda by underscoring the prospective danger of falling behind in a competition with China. Such a zero-sum framing is neither necessary to mobilize domestic support for the policy, nor conducive to reinvigorating America’s tech industry through attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign workers.

President Biden can secure popular support for his tech policy agenda without having to frame the issue as an effort to beat China. Recent polling data shows that a majority of likely voters view technology as a force for good. Moreover, the survey data suggests that highlighting China as a major foreign threat to the United States may be unnecessary for the Biden administration to make progress on its tech policy agenda. 

Respondents were just as likely to support increased tech investment in order to compete with Europe as to compete with China. In other words, in the realm of technology, what people seem to really care about is whether the United States can stay ahead in a global competition, rather than whether it can “win” against China specifically. In addition to the polling data, recent scholarly findings indeed cast doubt on the effectiveness of using foreign security threats to forge domestic political consensus. 

Such efforts to depict educational exchanges, foreign gifts, internationally-funded research collaboration, and tech development as components of a zero-sum competition with China can also aggravate racial profiling targeting Chinese American scholars and scientists in U.S. universities and research institutions, whose legitimate collaboration with foreign researchers and institutions is being portrayed as potential espionage. Some Chinese American scientists prosecuted with criminal charges in recent years have turned out to be innocent, but their lives were ruined. Such witch-hunting in America’s science and research community is also hurting U.S. interests and innovation because it not only alienates Chinese American scholars and scientists but also leads to a U.S. brain drain by driving them to seek jobs elsewhere — such as China.

This trend is also at odds with Biden’s immigration reform that would make it easier for foreign students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM to stay in the United States as America’s tech industry heavily relies on high-skilled immigrants from countries including India, China, and Iran. Chinese students studying STEM subjects have been a major source of high-skilled foreign workers in the Silicon Valley.

However, they are also being seen as potential spies, making them feel mistrusted and unwelcome. Senator Mitt Romney, for example, recently said that he would be “very, very reluctant to bring in students from China” who he thought were here to “steal technology.” Such a mindset would only play into Beijing’s hand by helping it retain talent at the expense of America’s tech industry.

International educational exchanges, research collaboration, and technological advancement are, at the end of the day, about making a “better us” by maintaining America’s attractiveness as the world’s leader in tech innovation, scientific research, and higher education. The United States can do so by continuing to welcome talent from around the world, including China, rather than by engaging in witch-hunting at home and waging a tech war abroad. While concerns about America’s open society being exploited are legitimate and need to be appropriately addressed, the Strategic Competition Act’s proposed measures and the Biden administration’s current tech policy would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Read the first three installments of the series:

The ‘Strategic Competition Act’ is a dangerous declaration of cold war on China

Stability in the Taiwan Strait at risk under ‘Strategic Competition Act’

How the ‘Strategic Competition Act’ could actually stonewall talks with North Korea

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva via
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