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India announced new restrictions on the eve of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping (left), who shook hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Arjuna’s Penance, a monument in Mamallapuram, India.

Indian Prime Minister’s Office/AP

Indian government tightens rules on academic collaboration with China

NEW DELHI—India is tightening the rules for academic collaborations with its neighbor and main rival, China. Under a new policy, universities and research institutes must seek permission from the ministries of Home Affairs and External Affairs before signing a collaboration agreement or memorandum of understanding with a Chinese institution. The announcement from the University Grants Commission (UCG), which regulates the country’s more than 900 universities and research institutes, came on the eve of a visit last week by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India.

What impact the new policy will have is unclear because collaboration between the two countries is already limited. But some scientists are angry. “It’s a negative move and is antiscience in spirit,” says Indian paleontologist Ashok Sahni, a professor emeritus at Panjab University in Chandigarh. “Science knows no boundaries and people who make such laws have not practiced science.”

Indo-Chinese scientific cooperation was tight in the 1950s but came to a standstill after the 1962 war between the two countries that led to several unresolved border disputes and occasional skirmishes. Contacts resumed in the 1980s, when the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) set up an exchange program for scientists. Only 88 Indian scientists have visited China as part of the program since 1995, and 72 Chinese researchers have come to India, though none in the past 2 years. INSA did not take CAS up on an offer to host 20 young Indian scientists for a week in September.

Individual Indian scientists work in China as well, but their number is unknown. Very few Chinese scientists appear to work in India, in part because it’s difficult for them to get a visa even to attend a conference, Indian scientists say.

The Indian government did not explain why it is changing its policy now, or how the government will judge proposed partnerships between Indian and Chinese institutions. UCG did not respond to questions from Science about the policy.

Ajey Lele, a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a government-funded think tank here, says India has reason to be cautious. China has not allowed India to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which regulates nuclear materials and technology supplies, and China has sided with India’s arch-adversary Pakistan on the issue of the disputed territory of Kashmir. “China’s record in alleged reverse engineering of various technologies developed in the West and theft of intellectual property has also been a source of serious concern in India,” Lele says. “So, you can’t be poetic about India-China relations.”

Some fruitful collaborations between the countries do exist. Just this week, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (BSIP) in Lucknow, India, and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology in Beijing agreed in principle to collaborate in studying fossils and sediments related to the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction event, 66 million years ago. BSIP researchers have also collaborated with the Institute of Botany in Beijing, says Director Vandana Prasad, and are working with colleagues at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden in Yunnan, part of CAS. There are restrictions on both sides, however, Prasad says: Indian researchers can’t go to Tibet, for instance, and those from China can’t visit contested border areas in Gujarat.

Although both countries take great pride in their ambitious space programs, some collaboration in that area is planned as well. Both the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the Indian Institute of Technology Varanasi will contribute experiments for the Chinese large modular space station, scheduled to become operational in 2022.

But many scientists say both countries would benefit from tighter academic links. Biologist Sathyabhama Das Biju of Delhi University, whose team has discovered 92 new species of amphibians, says he would love to work more closely with Chinese researchers. Exchanging specimens stored in museum collections is “out of the question,” he says, “but if we could discuss and collaborate more, it will definitely help.”

Prasad concurs. “It would be wonderful if Indian and Chinese scientists could collaborate more on issues of joint interest,” she says. “I feel that our government should make sure that there are not too many hurdles and restrictions,” adds India’s best-known chemist, C. N. R. Rao of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru.

Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser to the Indian government, did not directly address questions about the new policy, but says improving scientific ties between India and China is still the government’s goal. “For historical reasons, the East has looked to the West for collaborations. It is now time for India, China, and other Asian countries to work together to form a science and technology collaborative in addition to collaboration with the West,” he says.