SAN FRANCISCO —  In response to Republican lawmakers who chastised him for conducting discussions with Chinese government officials despite a congressional ban, the White House’s top science adviser said the United States reaps important benefits from its interactions with China that must be weighed against inherent risks.

During bilateral discussions on innovation conducted in May, Chinese government officials were persuaded to halt policies that discriminated against U.S. companies, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said Nov. 2 during a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee’s oversight and investigation panel. In addition, bilateral cooperation has produced agreements that will help U.S. government officials respond to epidemics that originate in China, he said.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials also are aware of the potential harm that can occur during cooperation, including the loss of technology and intellectual property with potential military applications, Holdren said. “I do not dispute that there have been technology transfers to China we do not wish and would not welcome,” Holdren told lawmakers. “That is part of the cost that has to be traded off against the benefits.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee, said any bilateral discussion of technology carried risks that far outweighed potential benefits. “Any effort on our part to reach out to the Communist Chinese, to engage them on matters of technology is, quite frankly, not just naïve but dangerous,” Rohrabacher said.

Rohrabacher said bilateral cooperation in the 1990s helped the Chinese government obtain ballistic missile technology that endangers U.S. national security.

The Nov. 2 hearing was prompted by an Oct. 11 letter to Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, from Lynn Gibson, general counsel for the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In the letter, Gibson said OSTP officials violated U.S. law by participating in May in bilateral discussions with Chinese officials in spite of a language included in a 2011 spending bill enacted in April that specifically prohibited those talks.

GAO concluded that OSTP officials violated the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits U.S. government employees from spending money that Congress has not appropriated. “If Congress specifically prohibits a particular use of appropriated funds, any obligation for that purpose is in excess of the amount available,” Gibson wrote in the letter. In May, OSTP officials spent approximately $3,500 to participate in discussions and a dinner with Chinese government officials in Washington, according to the GAO letter.

Wolf, a vocal critic of China’s human rights policies who also testified at the hearing, inserted the language in the 2011 spending bill barring OSTP and NASA from participating in any bilateral activities with China. “Following the law is not voluntary for administration officials,” Wolf said, adding that Holdren should publicly admit his error in participating in bilateral meetings and commit to full compliance with the legislation.

Holdren said, however, that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo Sept. 19 advising OSTP officials to continue to participate in bilateral meetings with China on science and technology issues because those activities “fall under the President’s exclusive constitutional authority to conduct foreign diplomacy and thus are not precluded by the statute.”

Wolf wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in October asking him to rescind the Justice Department’s memo to OSTP and hold Holdren accountable for violating the prohibition on bilateral engagement.

Wolf, a critic of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s 2010 trip to China, expressed concern about discussions between NASA leaders and Chinese space agency officials. “I have been very troubled by this administration’s apparent eagerness to work with China on its space program and willingness to share other sensitive technologies,” Wolf said.

The China National Space Administration is led by the People’s Liberation Army, Wolf said. “I want to be clear: the United States has no business cooperating with the People’s Liberation Army to help develop its space program,” he added.

Bolden said NASA’s work with the Chinese space agency has been “very limited” due to U.S. legal and policy restrictions. NASA has signed only one agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to exchange data related to predicting, monitoring and responding to earthquakes, Bolden added. Additional cooperation, including working groups focused on Earth and space sciences, were disbanded as a result of the provisions in the 2011 spending bill that prohibit the space agency from conducting bilateral activity with China unless specifically authorized by Congress, Bolden told lawmakers.

Nevertheless, Bolden said he believed some discussions with Chinese space agency officials would be beneficial. “I believe that some level of engagement with China in space-related areas of the future can form the basis for dialogue and cooperation in a manner that is consistent with the national interests of both our countries when based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit,” Bolden said. “Initial discussions in areas such as orbital debris mitigation and disaster management can provide benefits to the United States and, perhaps eventually, form the basis for continued dialogue in other areas of space exploration.”



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Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...