In the past decade, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has sent 2,500 military scientists, researchers and engineers abroad, according to the report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research institution in Canberra, the capital.
While they work with academics and scientists at institutions around the world, they are especially concentrated in the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the so-called Five Eyes nations that broadly share intelligence.
The number of peer-reviewed papers jointly published by Chinese scientists and their Western counterparts has increased more than sevenfold in that time, according to the report, to 734 last year from 95 in 2007. The research they conduct is sometimes in areas with strategic military applications like navigation technology, quantum physics and cryptography.
The report’s author, Alex Joske, said that Western countries risk inadvertently giving an edge to a rival military.
“China is not an ally; it’s increasingly a competitor in the Pacific,” he said in an interview. “We shouldn’t be helping them improve their military technology by helping their scientists train to get military advantage.”
In his report, Mr. Joske also notes that while most of the scientists sent by the People’s Liberation Army are open about the institutions they come from, some appear to hide their military affiliations by using “misleading historical names for their institutions” or even naming ones that do not exist.
Adam Ni, a China researcher at the Australian National University who was not involved in the report, said, “You often see people who are dual-hatted, a P.L.A. organization that is under a certain department that is presented to the civilian world as a civilian organization, and their researchers would go overseas in their civilian capacity or name in order to study and do research.”
“The P.L.A. have been doing this for a long time in a fairly deliberate way,” he added, “to obtain or learn expertise and bring that back into China to advance China’s economic development and its military modernization efforts.”
In a separate article published Tuesday, Mr. Joske cited the case of a Chinese student named Huang Xianjun, who in 2016 completed a Ph.D. at the University of Manchester in England. While there he worked with the discoverers of graphene, which some researchers describe as a wonder material 100 times stronger than steel that has enormous technological potential.
According to a Chinese military newspaper, Mr. Joske wrote, Dr. Huang now works as a researcher at the army’s National University of Defense Technology, which had originally sent him overseas. Mr. Joske quotes the newspaper as saying that Dr. Huang aims to open up graphene’s possibilities in fields like artificial intelligence and develop a team to work on them, “while sticking close to the needs of the military.”
The top universities outside China for collaboration with the Chinese military, as measured by the number of peer-reviewed publications that P.L.A. scientists wrote with foreign colleagues, were Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, followed by the University of New South Wales in Australia, the University of Southampton in England and the University of Waterloo in Canada, Mr. Joske reported.
The top three American ones he cited are Georgia Tech, the Illinois Institute of Technology and the United States Naval Academy.
Mr. Joske said that universities had been mostly muted in their responses when he raised his concerns with them.
“Their responses were basically, ‘We haven’t breached any laws; this is civilian research and doesn’t represent a security risk,’” he said.
Prof. John Fitzgerald, a China specialist at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, welcomed the report and said it should prompt universities to reconsider their policies.
“The evidence is now out there,” he said. “A lot of the universities claimed they had no knowledge before; this is what they need to make a judgment.”
“The other aspect of this is, which institutions in the Five Eyes countries are collaborating with Chinese institutions that have military affiliations?” he continued. “Why are Western universities supporting research with universities that are waging cyberwarfare and apparently preparing for war?”
In a statement to The Times, Prof. Ian Jacobs, president and vice chancellor at the University of New South Wales, defended collaborations with institutions like China’s National University of Defense Technology “as part of our work as a globally engaged university.”
“This research has been published in internationally peer-reviewed academic journals which are in the public domain,” he said, adding that the university “conducts rigorous assessments” to ensure collaborations do not end up exporting military expertise.
But Mr. Joske questioned the ability of Australia’s export control laws to limit the flow of secret technology overseas, in part because much of it involves the “intangible transfer of technology” rather than physical goods.
“In Australia we need responses in the form of the defense laws and better scrutiny of their applications on foreign military personnel,” he said. “We don’t have any controls over any technology transfer. So for any P.L.A. member in Australia, it’s totally legal to transfer technology to that person, even if it were illegal to do it across the border.”
Despite concerns about Chinese influence on academic freedom and even national politics, Australian universities have been bolstered by Chinese money flowing in, as have Australian businesses. At universities, it has often taken the form of student enrollment. Some have major partnerships with China like the Torch Innovation Project, which supports science and technology research at the University of New South Wales with up to 100 million Australian dollars, or about $71 million, in Chinese investment in exchange for sharing the findings.
“Universities are in the business of research,” said Professor Fitzgerald of Swinburne University. “This isn’t about recruiting students or student numbers, it’s really about being at the cutting edge of technology and the reputational advantages of being in on breakthroughs, and China at the present time is at the forefront.”
“The institutions see opportunities to fund research and to push themselves up the competitive ladder and to enjoy any potential commercial spinoffs of that research,” he said.
But if Australian universities do not scrutinize Chinese applicants more carefully, the government may start doing it for them, Professor Fitzgerald said.
“It’s a risky argument for a university to make, saying there’s no law against it,” he said. “Are they inviting greater legislation? Wouldn’t it be better to act on the knowledge in their possession and behave like responsible autonomous institutions?”
The Australian government has signaled it may step in to protect against foreign threats if large organizations do not.
In a speech on Monday, Mike Burgess, the head of the Australian Signals Directorate, the government’s cybersecurity agency, noted that “strategic and economic power is shifting east, as are the centers of expertise for technology, research and development.”
While not naming China, Mr. Burgess elaborated on the government’s recent decision to bar the Chinese technology giants Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment to support Australia’s new fifth-generation, or 5G, telecommunications networks.
“5G technology will underpin the communications that Australians rely on every day,” Mr. Burgess said at a national security dinner in Canberra. “This is about more than just protecting the confidentiality of our information. It is also about integrity and availability of the data and systems on which we depend. Getting security right for our critical infrastructure is paramount.”
He also said that the agency’s mandate was changing and that it now had “an important role in advising government how best to navigate major technology and strategic shifts.”
He added, “Our work is informed by us mastering technology.”
Published at Tue, 30 Oct 2018 11:46:25 +0000