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Recalibrating the EU's research and innovation engagement with China

Until recently, European policy makers and academics were generally uncritical of science, technology, and innovation (STI) cooperation with China. In the context of China’s growing strength and ambitions in STI and the challenges its political system poses for cooperation, the EU and its member states have undergone a change of heart, taking measures to protect their research security and integrity. But a more coherent and informed strategy is still needed.

In November 2021, Reuters reported that a Chinese professor employed by the University of Copenhagen had co-authored a research paper with a member of the Chinese military without disclosing this relationship to the university. Conducted at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) laboratory, the research focused on the development of new drugs to prevent brain damage at high altitudes. Improving soldiers’ performance at extreme altitudes is a priority for the Chinese military due to its operations on the Tibetan plateau. This is one of the latest in a string of examples illustrating the risks of collaboration with China for European research.

It is not surprising that, in parallel with increased scrutiny of Chinese acquisitions in high-technology sectors and exports of dual-use technologies to China and other authoritarian countries, the mood in Europe is shifting when it comes to research partnerships. But this has not yet translated into a sharper and more actionable strategy which strikes the right balance between the costs and benefits of collaboration. Beyond reactive responses to China’s policies and actions, Europe still lacks the vision and tools to set the agenda for research cooperation with the world’s second-largest economy. This urgently needs to be addressed.

EU shift to “open strategic autonomy”

Traditionally wary of interfering in scientific and business exchanges, the EU is now coming to terms with the growing geopolitical contestation over technology, and even science. The US and China are fighting for dominance in fields ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) to quantum computing. China’s President Xi Jinping views STI as a “battlefield of the international strategic game,” while US officials are urging Europe to work with them to “slow down China’s rate of innovation.” Within this struggle for dominance, Europe is realizing that its own competitiveness, security, and values are at stake. To preserve them, it will need to forge its own strategic response.

The EU’s May 2021 strategy for international cooperation in research and innovation puts forward “open strategic autonomy” as its response to a rapidly changing international context in which cooperation is indispensable, but STI influences and interacts with economics, politics, and security in unprecedented ways. The EU and some member states are developing tools to protect their interests. Denmark, for example, set up a committee in 2021 to review the ethical and security risks of international cooperation. Other European countries are also taking similar measures, some with a specific China focus, such as guidelines for research institutions that work with Chinese partners. The European Commission, for its part, is planning to release guidance on foreign interference aimed at EU universities and higher education institutions. In the meantime, negotiations between the Commission and Beijing on the next joint roadmap for R&I cooperation are being delayed by disagreements over “framework conditions,” with the EU side demanding greater reciprocity for its researchers and businesses.

A further tool is the EU’s new Horizon Europe research funding program which can, under exceptional circumstances, exclude partners to safeguard “strategic assets, interests, autonomy or security.” Other measures include the stepping up of export control enforcement for research involving dual-use items and knowledge by countries including Germany; similarly, the Commission issued a recommendation in September 2021 to help research institutions comply with the recently reformed export controls regime.

Europe needs measures like these to protect its knowledge security, particularly in relation to the Chinese acquisition and leveraging of foreign civilian innovation for military upgrading and mass surveillance. But it also has to go a step further and develop a proactive, strategic approach which deals with the three main challenges to research and innovation engagement with China.

Challenges to R&I engagement

The first is information asymmetry. In May 2021, Xi Jinping stated that “the CCP Central Committee has comprehensively analyzed the competitive situation of international scientific and technological innovation.” The Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University has documented some of the tools China uses to collect information on the foreign technological advancements it then targets for acquisitions and partnerships, including a global network of science and technology diplomats and a sophisticated open-source intelligence (OSINT) system. By contrast, knowledge of China’s STI assets and policies in many European capitals is limited.

Second, the fragmented nature of the European Research Area (ERA) and siloed policy structures create coordination challenges. China strategically links STI to other policy domains: industry, economic development, trade and investment, defense, education, and cyber. This approach, coupled with the rapid pace of technological transformation, sometimes overwhelms Europe’s decision-making processes. Coordination between different ministries and agencies – not to mention capitals – cooperating with or affected by China in STI is often loose. Member states’ research and education ministries have started to compare notes through the China Core Group and the EU R&I Knowledge Network on China (EU-KNoC), but much remains to be done.

Lastly, Europe needs a clearer collective vision of its priorities and red lines in cooperation with China. Information gaps partly explain why European actors are often less well prepared than their Chinese counterparts when negotiating research partnerships, letting them set the agenda. Policy responses also tend to be reactive – spurred by imbalances in access to research funding and Chinese Communist Party interference in academia, for instance – rather than formed strategically and holistically in view of long-term opportunities and challenges.

A more strategic European approach

To develop a more nuanced and proactive approach to engaging with China, member states have to work together. Shared decisions can then be taken on areas in which cooperation with China should be restricted or monitored, and those in which it is in the EU’s interest to create partnerships. This is an extremely granular exercise: not all cooperation on climate science is beneficial, and not all joint publications on AI are a threat to human rights. Decision making has to be based on prioritizations of and within technology value chains and a dynamic assessment of EU-China inter-dependencies, from the lab to industrial production and commercialization. It also requires better coordination between different ministries, and multi-stakeholder conversations with research institutions and the corporate sector.

Europe’s strategy can only succeed if it is based on robust information and risk management structures. Investments are needed in Europe’s own STI open-source intelligence capabilities and their use to monitor China’s technological advances and support due diligence on prospective Chinese partners. Large, strategic cooperation projects and programs need effective risk management mechanisms, drawing lessons from past cooperation failures such as Galileo and involving the intelligence community and China experts.

China’s significant contribution to the global enterprise of knowledge, the dynamism of its economy and innovation system, and the need to work together to tackle the climate crisis and other global challenges demonstrate that decoupling is not an option for Europe, nor should it be. Instead, Europe needs to ensure that the frameworks and tools are in place for informed, proactive, and responsible engagement with China, and to identify areas for mutually beneficial cooperation. Only in this way can Europe develop the strong and dynamic research, technology, and innovation systems that will be decisive in keeping it attractive, prosperous, and relevant.

This article is a summary of an input paper prepared for a workshop of the ECFR-MERICS European Caucus on China, which you can download here.