National security has and continues to remain a core topic when discussing the deteriorating relations between the United States and China. In 2019, these concerns first manifested themselves through a US ban on Chinese tech company Huawei that referenced security issues, which ultimately brought the company to the forefront of diplomatic relations. In a more recent development in US-China relations, on September 8th, Washington revoked nearly 1,000 visas from Chinese researchers and graduate students, once again citing security concerns.
A changing tone on IP protections
Intellectual property protection laws have been central to the national security conflict between the two power players. As the US and China compete for global leadership across a spectrum of strategic fields spanning AI and cloud computing to military technologies, it comes as no surprise that proprietary information within these fields needs protection. Although the US has long voiced concerns about Chinese espionage over American intellectual property, Washington has recently become more direct in accusing groups of Chinese nationals like students and researchers of specific IP-related crimes like the theft of COVID-19 research, trade secrets, proprietary software code, and military intelligence. Most recently, Chad Wolf, the acting head of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claimed that the 1,000 Chinese students and researchers who had their visas revoked were said to have ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army and China’s central military strategy. Although the visa ban is designed to prevent the theft of US intellectual property, it raises the questions of the broader impact that bolder US action will bring.
As restrictions against Chinese citizens in the US tighten, some also question the effect that the decision to revoke the visas will have on American technology and medical development. Steven Chu, the former United States Secretary of Energy, has expressed concern that Chinese researchers are leaving the US due to the fear of being unfairly targeted and investigated. The visa ban has raised the alarm that it may set a dangerous precedent and association with the broader Chinese community as a risk to national security. Reportedly, several researchers (namely those in the medical field) have proactively sought lawyers out of fear of national profiling in their workplaces and that “their lives will be ruined for no good reason.” Although the FBI and institutions like the National Institute of Health have come forward stating investigations are not conducted based on race or nationality, this highlights how the wider impacts of the ongoing feud between China and the United States are profoundly changing the lives of many individuals for the worse.
Winning the battle to lose the war?
Given the importance of protecting intellectual property and national security for both countries, it is unlikely either side will yield to the other. At present, it seems both the US and China will continue implementing security measures through new policies and protocols like the US revoking the visas of suspected Chinese students and researchers. The issue that remains to be answered is the lasting implication the dispute between the US and China will not only have on current Chinese nationals in the US but how it will impact the US’ ability to attract talent from China to its academic and research institutions – thus potentially hampering the nation’s ability to remain competitive over the long-term in a rapidly innovating global landscape.