PLA Extends Reach to Universities: ASPI Report
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a non-partisan independent think tank, released a report on Oct. 26, 2018, detailing how the Chinese military (People’s Liberation Army, PLA) sends its scientists abroad to universities — mainly in the West — in order to become involved in military research and scholarly collaboration. The report, which alleges that the PLA’s efforts are directed at obtaining expertise and knowledge of cutting edge technologies for China’s advancement in military technology, has sparked debates in countries where these universities are located over the role of government intervention in academic institutions in the name of national security and the potential threat to academic freedom such intervention would entail.
The ASPI report describes alleged PLA overreach into Western universities as “international military-civil fusion” and warns of national security breaches. The issue of hosting Chinese state-sponsored academics is particularly acute for Australia, which has the highest level of collaboration with these PLA-affiliated academics among the countries surveyed in the report.
Titled “Picking Flowers, Making Honey” — a reference to the PLA’s own description of its effort to utilize foreign expertise, training, and research to improve and enhance its own military technology — the report states that over 2,500 military scientists, researchers, and engineers have been sent from China to collaborate at universities abroad since 2007. The vast majority of these state-sponsored academicians were sent to universities located in the “Five Eyes” nations — a tight-knit intelligence alliance made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States — along with institutions in Singapore and Germany.
Analysis of statements made by leaders of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) suggests, per the report, that the Chinese government and the PLA are deliberately making efforts to import technology from the scientists dispatched overseas. While many of the scientists are forthcoming with the fact that they are affiliated with the PLA or with civilian universities specializing in PLA work, others hide or lie about their background.
The murky affiliations of researchers sent abroad, the vast majority of whom work in sensitive fields with wide-ranging potential or realized military applications, makes it difficult for host universities and host countries to properly vet visa applications and limit access to sensitive information and technology. The report points to the rapid development of technologies in China after scholars — especially those working in sectors with wide-ranging military applications — return back to China from abroad as a concerning indicator of intellectual property theft and espionage.
Additionally, the report notes that these Chinese scientists — of which 100% are affiliated with the PLA, as claimed by the PLA in 2013 — remain under the close supervision of the CCP, with several hosting universities seeing the rise of campus CCP branches. The establishment of overseas CCP branches is in line with another finding made earlier this year by Foreign Policy, which suggested that the Chinese government and CCP use these overseas Party organizations to enforce ideological discipline and threaten non-compliant Chinese academics located abroad.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has stepped up efforts to advance and modernize China’s military technology, including efforts to obtain technologies from private sectors in China and abroad. Regarding the fact that much cutting-edge research occurs in private sectors — rather than in government laboratories — the Chinese government has sought to reduce the barrier between the government and the private sector in its undertakings that experts have called “civil-military fusion.”
Recognizing China as a strategic rival rather than a bona fide ally, certain governments are considering taking steps to increase restrictions in order to bolster regulation over the exports of technology and expertise. Late last month, Australia’s Department of Defense publicly called for an extensive overhaul of laws that control sharing and exporting of sensitive Australian research and technology — including research done in academic institutions.
The ASPI report brings into sharp relief a government’s difficulty in regulating export of non-physical valuables, such as knowledge and technology. Furthermore, the military value of academic institutions — research, technical expertise, weaponry and theoretical innovation — especially with regards to the intimate relationship between academia and the home country hosting such institutions, raises alarm over breaches in national security.
On the other hand, academic institutions have raised concerns over potential increases in government intervention into academia, arguing that stricter laws may hinder academic freedom. In a direct response to the ASPI report, Ian Jacobs, president and vice-chancellor of Australia’s University of New South Wales, stated that the university’s collaboration with China’s National University of Defense Technology is “part of our work as a globally engaged university” and that “rigorous assessments” are conducted to ensure that military expertise is not inadvertently exported in collaborations with Chinese academics.
While Canberra deliberates over its future policies regarding academic collaboration with foreign agents and research controls, it is important to note the recent steps taken by the Australian government in order to counter the perceived widening influence of China in the country. Australia has balked on joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative — while its economy becomes increasingly exposed to Chinese wealth and consumer power — and the Australian government in late August this year rejected bids by Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE to provide infrastructure for fifth-generation telecommunications networks over concerns of possible cyberespionage ties with China, a move that echoes similar targeted actions against Chinese firms taken by the United States earlier this year as well.