What the Cold War can teach Washington about Chinese tech tensions

Chinese and American national flags flutter on a lamppost in Beijing festooned with surveillance cameras.

In a 1982 speech, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger warned that the United States had for the better part of a decade facilitated unfettered technological transfer and trade with the Soviet Union. This high-tech transfer, the secretary argued, was being done through “legal and illegal channels” and was effectively the technological “rope to hang us,” as it was bolstering Soviet military capability.

Replace the Soviet Union with China, and the themes of Weinberger’s speech would not seem out of place today. At the time, a strategic competitor appeared to be rapidly advancing on U.S. technological superiority through a concerted campaign of technology transfer, aided by U.S. scientific engagement policies, an open academic system, and intellectual property theft. In some cases, this had been abetted by U.S. high-tech trade with the Soviets over the previous decade: The sale of advanced ball bearing machines had helped improve the accuracy of Soviet missiles, the Pentagon chief declared. In other cases, allies were to blame, as when Japan sold civilian dockyards to the USSR that were diverted to service the Soviet’s new aircraft carriers. Replace ball bearings with lasers and dry docks for semiconductor manufacturing equipment, and Weinberger could be speaking of today’s trade tensions between the United States and China.

After decades of globalization, technological integration and open high-tech trade, justified anxieties have returned in Washington and its allied capitals over the depth and nature of their scientific and technological relationships with Beijing. In some ways, examples from the Cold War highlight the ordinariness of these concerns. Many have forgotten the depth of high-tech trade between the United States and the Soviet Union during periods of the Cold War, when Washington continued to largely engage with Moscow on basic science, including topics and technologies that were highly sensitive and dual use in nature. The debate over the wisdom of doing so has resurfaced in the last several years in relation to China. But ultimately the Cold War shows how different this new competition will be. China’s rise as a scientific and potentially technological peer will require fundamentally new thinking from Washington in how it works with its allies. The moral hazard is also more complex, as Beijing has sought U.S. and allied companies, technologies, and research to help bolster its transformation into a techno-authoritarian state.

The scientific ripples of the Cold War

The contours of the science and technological relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union ebbed and flowed depending on the strategic and political context. Amid fears of the Soviet Union, Congress passed the Internal Security Act in 1950 and the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1952, which granted power to the federal government to deny or delay visas to a wide array of European scientists. Congress began to investigate the loyalty of scientists receiving federal government grants. The federal government considered conditioning grant funds for scientific research on a loyalty oath, but that demand was ultimately dropped under pressure from the scientific community. Secrecy laws were also expanded. In the late 1940s, some of the first secrecy laws were passed in Congress relating to the classification of atomic energy. This included “born secret” provisions, which were the first attempts to extend classification laws to basic scientific research.

As McCarthyism began its decline in the late 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union established the foundations of scientific cooperation, even on strategically critical topics. At the 1958 International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, for example, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to declassify and publicize elements of their research on nuclear fusion. As a result, new fields of collaboration were established, including on the use of nuclear science for medical isotopes, agricultural production, and other non-military applications. This set the stage for the first significant scientific agreement between the U.S. National Academy of Science and the Academy of Science of the USSR in 1959, which facilitated scientific exchanges and joint symposia over the next decade on topics such as technology policy, environmental protection, energy development, and the technical aspects of arms control.

The arrival of the Nixon administration in 1969 presaged a policy of détente with the Soviet Union. With the moon landings a clear demonstration of American technological superiority, scientific exchange and even technological trade were seen as tools to be used to encourage a thawing of relations with Moscow and an adherence to the status quo. This period saw Washington and Moscow sign 11 agreements on science and technical cooperation between 1972 and 1974, resulting in 250 working groups involved in everything from technical information exchange to joint research. Reform in the 1969 Export Administration Act actively encouraged dual-use technological trade with Soviet bloc countries, including computing hardware and advanced industrial machinery. Even the Defense Science Board, the Pentagon’s top scientific and policy advisors, issued a report in 1970 calling for the roll back of certain secrecy and classification provisions, saying that “the amount of scientific and technical information which is classified could profitably be decreased perhaps as much as 90 percent.”

But this relaxation in U.S.-Soviet technological trade did not last. National security experts grew increasingly fearful of the narrowing gap between the United States and the Soviet Union on basic research and its direct application to military systems—not unlike similar concerns regarding machine learning or data analytics today. In 1976, another Defence Science Board report called for new types of export controls focused on controlling the “design and manufacturing know-how” of products, rather than simply the material product itself. This laid the basis for reforms to U.S. export controls and International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which exerted control over technical knowledge and interactions between persons, not just trade in physical goods, that still exist—and are being expanded —today.

This emphasis on personal contact set up a confrontation between the government and academia. In 1981, the Reagan Administration formed the Technology Transfer Intelligence Committee, which was made up of technical specialists from across the government that scrutinized visa applications from Soviet scientists to American academic conferences for national security risks. The committee was fairly active, denying or delaying visas for scientists attending conferences on bubble memory, fusion research, robotics and cryptography. Universities and the academic community pushed back, and in one instance the presidents of M.I.T., Stanford, Cornell, and the University of California published a joint letter arguing that the government’s effort to classify certain elements of research on integrated circuits was “self-defeating” and the only way to “contain” integrated circuit discoveries was to “classify the whole program.”

But in the 1980s Washington continued its push to limit interactions with the Soviet Union, as a new security concern arose: the Soviet Union’s industrial espionage to further its military capability. In 1981, the Pentagon released its annual assessment of Soviet military power, which detailed the numerous ways in which the Soviet Union was able to access America’s scientific and industrial knowledge, including via student exchanges, scientific symposia, unclassified technical reports, and publicly available literature. The report concluded that this technology transfer “saves the Soviets a considerable amount of time and money by pointing out the fruitful avenues of research and development.” This led Weinberger, and hawks like him, to decry U.S. technological exchange with the Soviet Union as “short-sightedness raised to the level of a crime.”

Rhyming with history

Many, if not all, of the challenges encountered by academia and the U.S. government and its allies while trading and collaborating with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War are repeating today with China. The dilemmas of engaging with a strategic competitor on matters of science—from concerns regarding dual-use technologies and research to industrial espionage, academic exchange, and visas—are continuations of debates that went dormant in 1989. For the most part, updating export controls to reflect new knowledge, incorporating the role of data, and ensuring there is a united, democratic front on technology standards is appropriate and overdue.

More difficult challenges loom ahead. As a recent speech given by President Xi Jinping to a room full of China’s best scientific and technological minds made clear, Beijing aims to continue its drive to become a world leading scientific power and to establish a domestic tech innovation ecosystem. By some measures, this has already occurred. With China weathering the economic fallout of COVID relatively better than most, Beijing has continued to divert substantial resources into national R&D, which is set to equal that of the Five Eye countries combined by the middle of this decade. While in the 1950s and some periods of the 1980s there was anxiety that the Soviet Union had exceeded or matched the West’s scientific and technological capability, for the majority of the Cold War the United States largely dominated both civilian and military dual-use technologies. This helped provide the political and strategic space for renewed scientific engagement, détente, and laid the basis for technical exchanges that aided the conclusion of arms control agreements between the two superpowers.

China is not the Soviet Union, and the emerging long-term competition is not the Cold War. China’s capacity to sustain a relative technological and scientific standard with the United States and its partners in the coming decade is far above that of the Soviet Union. This will require a fundamentally different approach in Washington’s relationship with its allies. For instance, during the Cold War, export control arrangements and other legal measures were intended to stop the flow of critical technology to the United States’ adversaries but also tethered allies as consumers in America’s military-technological system. A more collaborative standard will need to be adopted with allies in order for the United States to balance China over the long-term.

Unlike during the Cold War, the United States and its allies may not always engage China from a position of scientific and technological strength. One of the lessons from the Cold War is that scientific collaboration,  while a connection that can be exploited for advantage, provided the necessary technical basis to build trust and assurance on issues like arms control. It will also be crucial for cooperation on climate change and other emerging challenges like public health. The West’s advantage in being able to dictate the terms of scientific cooperation with its major rival is over, requiring new and innovative thinking in how it competes from a relatively weaker position in the future.

But there is another difference for which the Cold War leaves us few lessons. China’s growth into a digitally enabled authoritarian state presents new challenges that the Soviet Union did not, largely due to the types of technologies and wide accessibility of data available today. High-tech trade and scientific interactions in the Cold War may have helped Moscow grow its military and strategic power, but they were less directly related to its authoritarian grip than similar exchanges with China today. Advanced computer chips manufactured by leading U.S. companies help power supercomputers in China that are used to process surveillance data, track minorities, and monitor phone conversations. Well-documented university and research partnerships in Australia have involved advancing machine learning algorithms and big data analysis for Chinese state-owned enterprises intimately involved in Beijing’s suppression of Xinjiang.

For the most part, today’s debates over the shape of the West’s technological and scientific relationship with China are not new, and in some ways are strikingly similar to those that occurred forty years ago. Cooperation, exchange and even trade continued throughout the Cold War, often in sensitive dual-use areas that were important to solving global issues and aided strategic stability, albeit often from a position of relative strength. 

But the history also clarifies what is different. China will very likely be a larger, more sustainable, and advanced scientific and economic power than the Soviet Union ever was. Continued engagement with it on issues related to building a common technical and scientific understanding will be necessary. Taking on issues like climate change will require deeper scientific collaboration amid intensifying strategic competition, much like the U.S.-Soviet agreement to publicise civilian uses of nuclear technology in the late 1950s. The question will be whether the United States and its allies can balance justified anxieties over Beijing’s rapidly growing military capability and the competing strategic need to maintain a level of scientific cooperation in sensitive fields.

Given China’s drive to embed technology throughout its surveillance apparatus, the risk of moral entanglement and hazard is much broader for scientists, businesses, and democratic governments. The Cold War is useful in reminding us that some things that appear new are in fact old. It also helps illuminate the challenges the United States, Australia, and other like-minded powers now face.

Brendan Thomas-Noone is a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre.