Speaking to the American journal Science in 2008, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao admitted that China’s science and technology research efforts need to be “more integrated with those of the world.” Such integration, so appropriate today given China’s global position, was not always possible. Thanks to internal instability and the Cold War, Chinese science and technology remained locked out of collaborative relationships for decades, causing the country’s scientific community to fall far behind its European, American and Japanese counterparts.
However, as détente shifted global relationships in the 1970s, scientific exchanges quickly became one of the most successful components of China’s opening. Within a decade, China was America’s largest bilateral scientific partner – a position the country has retained ever since. Today, China maintains scientific agreements with over 150 countries, and those agreements are being used not only to further the advance of human knowledge but also as a means of political influence and diplomatic negotiation.
Science and technology have long been a part of Chinese diplomacy. The Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 proposed scientific exchanges years before the existence of formal US/China relations; similar exchanges occurred with France and West Germany. Throughout the 1970s the US provided China numerous scientific “carrots” to increase America’s political and commercial influence, including providing launch services for a geosynchronous telecommunications satellite, germ plasm for recombinant DNA, seismic survey ships from US oil firms, a Landsat groundstation, and the fabrication of a synchrotron for high-energy physics.
Indeed, by 1985, President Reagan could proudly note that “maturing science and technology cooperation with China, a cornerstone of our expanding relationship, is now in its eighth year and is our largest government-to-government program … we credit the doors opened by our successful science and technology program with contributing positively to the recent reforms made by the Chinese.”
The past two decades witnessed the maturation of Chinese science and technology at home and abroad. At home, the “wu ke” – namely the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), China Association for Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Engineering Sciences and the National Science Foundation of China – actively direct Chinese R&D, with the Ministry of Science and Technology the primary funder of international science collaboration (its 2005 budget included US$200 million for such activities). Abroad, China looks to international scientific collaboration to provide it with both prestige and access to cutting-edge research. For example, China completed about 1% of the International Human Genome Project and agreed in 2007 to pay around 10% of the costs of the ongoing International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project.
However, although China invests heavily in R&D and maintains a high annual R&D growth rate (around 18% between 2002-2007) as well as being a prime recipient of global venture capital, its role in international science remains limited. International collaboration is concentrated on five nations – the United States, Japan, Germany, the UK and Canada, which together account for nearly three-quarters of internationally co-authored Chinese papers.
Chinese scientific output as such may have little to offer established scientific powerhouses. To developing nations, however, cooperation with the Chinese science establishment represents opportunity.
For example, perhaps borrowing from its experience with the West, China currently uses its own science and technology to gain influence, resources and market access in Africa.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), established in 2000, is the primary Chinese vehicle for such ventures. Contracted through the state-owned China International Trust and Investment Company (CITIC), Beijing funds significant science and technology projects, including investing US$600 million for hydroelectric power in Ghana and US$938 million for an aluminum smelter in Egypt.
As Sino-African trade grew to US$100 billion annually, FOCAC launched new initiatives in 2009 in 49 different countries. The 100-plus demonstration projects funded by FOCAC included a research hospital in Nairobi, Kenya; an S&T center in Thyolo, Malawi; and the “Africa Technological City” near Khartoum.
Funded by cheap Chinese loans, such projects are naturally packaged as a “win-win” for both sides, offering China access and investments while benefiting local African societies.
Vasco Lino, research and innovation director for Mozambique’s Science and Technology Ministry explained in an article in Nature magazine: “They bring everything, they set everything in place; infrastructure, expert assistance. We never see the money, everything is handled by them. It’s very easy and fast. In one year, they finished everything.”
This Chinese alternative to Bretton Woods-style development worries critics, who emphasize the poor quality of Chinese assistance, the lack of local participation, and the state-centered approach to modernization. Nonetheless, many African countries consider China a useful partner; even a World Bank report concluded in 2008 that “China’s investments ease Africa’s poverty.”
Science and technology will play an ever-larger role in future Chinese foreign relations. For example, during the First Trilateral Korea-Japan-China Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology Cooperation, which took place in Seoul in 2007, the three regional powers agreed to create a bioinformatics network to share findings in the life sciences, increase regional corporate R&D investments, and collaborate on natural disaster prevention and mitigation.
The Chinese Academy of Science’s Roadmap to 2050 imagines the country as the world’s “science center.” Whether this is achievable and in what time frame is an open question – the domestic research system still suffers from institutional development challenges – but internal weakness means scientific cooperation is even more critical to China’s rise as a global power.
Cooperation provides China with access to cutting-edge research, and such exchanges provide a friendly basis for regional partnerships. Chinese science already operates as a diplomatic and economic tool in the developing world, and will likely play an even greater role in the future.
Professor John G. Whitesides, PhD, is the director of the International Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Denver. He is currently working on a book on science and American foreign policy