US lawmakers question funding of Chinese patents amid science pact talk

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Republican lawmakers on Wednesday asked the US Commerce Department whether the US government had funded research that resulted in Chinese patents, aiming to highlight what they view as the risks of renewing a bilateral science and technology agreement.

The decades-old US-China Science and Technology Agreement (STA) expired in August, but the US State Department has issued two six-month extensions in order to continue negotiations with Beijing over renewing it.

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The landmark pact, signed when Beijing and Washington established diplomatic ties in 1979 and renewed about every five years since, has underpinned cooperation in areas from atmospheric and agricultural science to basic research in physics and chemistry.

But concerns about China’s growing military prowess and alleged theft of US scientific and commercial achievements have prompted questions among some lawmakers, officials and researchers about whether the agreement should continue.

The House of Representatives’ select committee on China last year asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to scrap the deal.

The chair of the committee, John Moolenaar, on Wednesday wrote a letter with five other Republicans to Under Secretary of Commerce Kathi Vidal asking her to specify how many patents tied to US government funding had been filed annually since 2010 by inventors in China.

One select committee staff member told Reuters the committee estimated the number of such patents likely numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands, in that time period.

The lawmakers asked Vidal, director of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), to disclose any affiliation those patent seekers may have had with China’s military or entities facing US export controls, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.

“The American people deserve a full understanding of the extent to which a renewal of a US-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Science and Technology Agreement is threatening our intellectual property and national security,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Commerce Department did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

China has strongly supported renewing the STA, its ambassador to Washington Xie Feng having said it will “inject more positive energy” into what have been rocky bilateral relations.

US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns has said the deal needs to be modernized as previous iterations did not account for advances such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, machine learning and quantum mathematics.

US agencies have warned about Beijing-backed industrial espionage, forced technology transfers and other tactics that could fuel China’s military modernization, and many analysts say the agreement must be reworked to safeguard US innovation in a time of heightened strategic competition.

Proponents of renewing the deal argue that ending it would stifle academic and commercial cooperation, and block US visibility into China’s technical advances.

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