Thirty years ago, as U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping moved to normalize relations by signing a bi-lateral science and technology agreement, few could have foreseen the impact: S&T cooperation has become a pillar in a complex and important relationship, yielding a range of research advances and helping to drive billions of dollars in economic growth.
Today, the two nations are poised to help lead the world on a range of critical issues, said Chinese and U.S. science diplomacy leaders who met recently at AAAS for a public panel discussion. But in order to build true partnerships and work most effectively on grand challenges in energy, climate, health, and other fields, the experts said, the two nations also must work out issues related to security, visas, and intellectual property rights.
"Certainly our relationship with the Chinese science and technology community is a tremendous opportunity to forge collegial solutions to these kinds of problems," said AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science. "After all, the solutions won't be just political or economic—they will require science and technology."
Cao Jianlin, China's vice minister of science and technology, agreed that China-U.S. S&T cooperation is "a great cause," and he called for expanded joint research efforts between the two nations.
"The Chinese government is willing to set up joint research programs with U.S. counterparts in areas of mutual interest to give guidance to scientists and entrepreneurs of both countries," said Cao, who is also a member of the standing committee that helps oversee the non-governmental China Association for Science and Technology  (CAST). "On the basis of respecting and protecting intellectual property rights, we should give support to universities, research institutes, and enterprises of both nations to set up joint research centers of excellence or joint laboratories and encourage them to conduct joint R&D and commercialization."
The 90-minute discussion at AAAS was emblematic of the growing relationship—and a growing recognition of mutual interests—between the science and engineering communities in China and the United States.
"I feel that the future of the planet depends in large part on the cooperative relationship between the United States and China," said E. William Colglazier, executive officer of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. "Almost every area you can think of that's important to human endeavor—the economic sphere, environment, security, dealing with global health issues—really depends on the leadership of these two countries."
AAAS's Board of Directors initially visited China in 1978, and in the years since, it has worked to deepen engagement between scientists and engineers of the two nations. Leshner led a U.S. delegation to China  in September 2007, when AAAS and China's S&T leaders launched joint publishing projects and meetings about future areas of collaboration. The journal Science, published by AAAS, has opened a bureau in Beijing. Last September, Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts met for two hours with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao; in an editorial published in the journal a few weeks later, Wen called science "the ultimate revolution." EurekAlert!, AAAS's global news service, has opened a Chinese-language portal . On 27 April, scholars from China and the U.S. will meet for three days of discussions on ethics education in science organized by CAST and AAAS.
John J. Norris Jr.
Cao and Leshner delivered opening remarks at the 13 April panel, "U.S.-China Science and Technology Cooperation at 30: Looking Forward." The discussion featured four eminent figures in U.S. science and diplomacy: Colglazier, who also serves as chief operating officer of the National Research Council; John J. Norris Jr., deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the U.S. Department of State; Eugene B. Skolnikoff, professor emeritus of political science at MIT; and moderator Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, and senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. Also appearing at the meeting was Marco Di Capua, who has served as executive director of the U.S. Department of Energy's China office and in other diplomatic posts in Asia.
The panelists used the January 1979 signing of the landmark China-U.S. agreement on cooperation in science and technology as a springboard for their discussion, citing an array of past and current efforts to demonstrate the value of the China-U.S. engagement.
Cao, speaking through an interpreter, cited collaboration on a remote-sensing satellite ground station in China, a project on high-energy physics, and a study of meteorological satellites, among other initiatives. Di Capua listed a study of tectonic plates and experiments on the administration of folic acid to prevent spina bifida. A project to study sub-atomic neutrinos at a research complex in China has partners from many countries, but the leadership is split between the United States and China. Others noted joint efforts in arms control, energy and climate, and pharmacology.
This may be an auspicious time for increased cooperation, the speakers said. World attention is focused on the financial crisis, climate change and energy issues, and new U.S. President Barack Obama has made clear that his administration wants a more collaborative relationship with other nations.
The Obama administration moved quickly to establish constructive ties with the Chinese government, Norris said. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to China earlier this year, he said, she suggested three broad areas of cooperation—the financial crisis; international hot spots such as North Korea, Iran and Sudan; and climate change and clean energy.
When Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in London in advance of this month's summit of G20 nations, some pundits dubbed it the "G2" meeting in recognition of their roles as the world's leading economic powers. According to Cao, Hu told Obama that China would like to collaborate on a range of issues, including energy development and conservation, emission reduction, and environmental protection. Di Capua listed related issues for potential joint efforts, including carbon capture and sequestration, managing a "smart" power grid, and biofuels.
"We're off to a good start of high-ranking dialogue," Norris said of Obama's relations with China. "We want to expand on the areas of common interest. We know there are differences, and we want to deal with those frankly, but there's a lot of prospect for us to make progress on some of these key issues."
Where there are differences, they are often directly or indirectly related to each nation's security policies.
For example, both Cao and the U.S. speakers cited concerns over dual-use policies that limit export of technology that may be intended for civilian purposes but which could have military uses. According to the U.S. speakers, Congress has been strongly suspicious of efforts to share information and hardware with China and other nations—but that is short-sighted and self-defeating, they said.
Eugene B. Skolnikoff
Skolnikoff, who served on the White House science advisory staff under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter, said that while security concerns must be taken seriously, the concerns can be taken too far. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) developed by the United States during the Cold War have "almost destroyed the communications satellite industry" in the United States, he said. Export control regulations as applied after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 have placed some research fields off limits to foreign scholars and students working and studying in the United States.
Many elected officials and policy leaders feel that the United States "has to hold on very carefully to all our information to prevent it from being misused," Skolnikoff said. "In my view, that reflects a lack of understanding about what the rest of the world is up to these days, and whether we may need their information as much as they need ours. And that they can produce the information independently of us if we hold on to it. But that is not a view that that is generally accepted in Congress, and this remains a serious problem in our relationships."
At the same time, speakers said, the U.S. visa system presents so many obstacles and delays to foreign students and scholars who would visit the United States for S&T conferences, study, or work that many are now going to other countries instead; those who do come here increasingly choose not to stay, depriving the nation of their expertise.
Colglazier noted that a report released this year by the National Research Council's Committee on Science, Security, and Prosperity in a Changing World offered similar warnings about how export controls and the U.S. visa system can backfire. The report—"Beyond Fortress America" —found that "we're really harming ourselves with some of these rigid regulations and export controls," he said. "We're actually harming the economic interests and security of the United States."
Norman P. Neureiter
Neureiter is a member of the committee that produced the report; influential national security expert Brent Scowcroft is the co-chair. Said Neureiter: "When you have someone like Brent Scowcroft stand up in a committee session and say the visa system in this country and the export control system are broken and we need to fix them—that's powerful language."
But the speakers also suggested that, to smooth the way for greater cooperation, it would be helpful for China to be more transparent and more sensitive to intellectual property rights.
Skolnikoff cited the challenge faced by colleagues who are working on climate modeling. They depend on the availability of data, he said, but "they're very wary about getting involved with China on a joint program because the experience of so many [researchers] is that China will simply not provide the data necessary. This kind of collaboration simply won't work if it doesn't have that data."
This lack of transparency empowers elected officials and policymakers in the United States who want to restrict engagement with China, the speakers said.
To emphasize the importance of transparency in sensitive areas, Neureiter, who served as the science adviser to U.S. Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, cited China's current effort to modernize its nuclear weapons arsenal. That effort has been explained as an effort to add mobility to Chinese launchers and to increase their number in order to survive a first-strike from the United States, he said to Minister Cao. "But as American officials read about the modernization of your nuclear arsenal, they say, 'Oh, China is building up its nuclear weapons capability—we have to build more in this country to counteract that.'
"Through mutual transparency on both sides, we absolutely must avoid getting into some kind of an arms race... It's very important that we know what China is doing and that China knows what we are doing in the defense area, so that we don't make a serious mistake or miscalculation on either side,"
Cao said that China sees intellectual property rights as important protections not only for the United States and other developed nations, but for Chinese innovators as well.
"The Chinese government and science communities have all been fully aware that the protection of intellectual property rights is very important and we attach great importance to patent protection and other efforts," he said. "Without that effort to protect IP, both China and the United States would be harmed."
But like his American colleagues, Cao suggested that the issues could be addressed and the obstacles to collaboration lowered.
"I would like to emphasize that we should join hands to keep the momentum of cooperation and mutual development," he said. "Between us we should keep effective exchange and communication, and China will continuously learn from the U.S.... I believe that by our concerted efforts, in the future 30 years, we may achieve more progress."