The Blog

As Obama and Xi Meet, Growing US-China Science and Technology Ties Should Serve As a Warning to Europe

Painful as it is to acknowledge as the President of a top science and technology university in Europe, the risks are particularly grave for European countries unless the continent raises its game in a quite dramatic way.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama hold their first major Summit meeting in California, both leaders are reportedly keen to move ties onto a more positive footing and re-define the bilateral great power relationship. Despite much media attention on disagreements, ranging from Taiwan to alleged cyber-attacks, there is in fact a relatively new and growing basis for warmer ties based upon increased scientific and technological collaboration.

This pattern of cooperation, crucial to the future prosperity of both countries, will serve as a stabilising force for bilateral relations for years to come. However, it should also serve as an urgent wake-up call for other states across the world, not least in Europe, which risk being left behind.

Of course, the growing macroeconomic linkages between the United States and China are now well known. Collectively, the two countries account for around a third of global GDP (and have been a significant source of global economic growth in recent years). For well over a decade, for instance, the United States has served as the pre-eminent market for Chinese exports, whilst Beijing holds large portions of the US debt that finances this.

What is not commonly understood, however, is the degree to which both countries are moving their economic relationship towards new knowledge economy collaboration which is crucial for their medium and long-term growth. This was one of the striking conclusions presented at the 2013 Global University Summit, held in London on May 28-30.

The summit underlined how technological and scientific research cooperation is being accelerated and consolidated between China and the United States (which, of course, has much attraction for the Chinese as the world's largest, most dynamic, and innovative economy). One notable example, which came in a presentation at the summit by Thomson Reuters, is the increase in US scientific research papers authored in collaboration with Chinese academics in recent years.

To be sure, some other countries are also cooperating more with China in this regard too. However, the one that continues to secure disproportionate traction is the United States. Indeed, in absolute terms in 2012, the United States collaborated on more scientific research papers with China as did the next highest four combined (Japan, UK, Germany and Australia), according to Thomson Reuters.

This asymmetric pattern of scientific research collaboration with China is a trend with potentially fundamental implications if it continues, let alone accelerates further. And it should certainly serve as a wake-up call for other countries across the world.

Painful as it is to acknowledge as the President of a top science and technology university in Europe, the risks are particularly grave for European countries unless the continent raises its game in a quite dramatic way.

Europe already faces an "innovation emergency", as Brussels has acknowledged. If the continent is to retain its economic pre-eminence well into the twenty first century, it must act urgently to lock-in much greater science and technology-led cooperation with China in particular.

To be sure, the European economy is not as vibrant as its US counterpart, but it still has attraction for the Chinese. But this won't be the case forever.

Right now, a 'one-time-only' opportunity exists to move EU-China scientific and technological ties on to a new level. However, this window will last only a decade before China's innovation system approaches, and perhaps overtakes, that of Europe.

Seizing this historic opportunity, while there still exists mutual bilateral interest, requires a revolutionary shift in the scale of European thinking and effort. It should be uppermost on the mind of the continent's leaders as we recover from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

How should Europe secure the prize of locking in collaboration with China?

Firstly, every link of the innovation chain from research to commercialisation must be strengthened, including through the Europe 2020 strategy being driven from Brussels. We also must give greater urgency to national initiatives to reform R&D and innovation systems.

Europe must capitalise on existing strengths and find synergies between Chinese growth needs, and the potential and objectives of European industry, research and consultancy. Europe's strengths include exceptionally high quality of research; ability to work in interdisciplinary fashion (which makes research increasingly effective); and a very successful international corporate sector.

What we need to do, quite simply, is translate more of Europe's world-leading specialities into global competitive advantage. In food and nutrition, for instance, in which the continent excels, there is growing need in China for international scientific expertise owing to need for better production efficiency and quality.

If Europe can raise its game and step up to the historical challenge it confronts, compelling value propositions can also be developed in virtually all fields of science and research, including biotechnology, medical technology, nano-electronics and embedded systems, pharmaceuticals, and creative and design.

As the two presidents summit in California, their political counterparts in Europe should smell the coffee and grip this growth agenda. The challenges are real, but if we don't surmount them, Europe and much of the rest of the world risk being left behind by the Chinese and US economic juggernauts.

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