Unease in Australia over research tie-ups with China scientists

Article raises concerns that Aussie unis are unwittingly assisting in Beijing's military tech

A series of research partnerships and collaborations between Chinese scientists and Australian universities has raised concerns that the universities are unwittingly helping Beijing to develop and improve its military technology.

Many of the scientific partnerships were reportedly developed by a leading Chinese military researcher named Lieutenant-General Yang Xuejun, who was recently made a member of the Chinese Communist Party's 204-member Central Committee at the 19th national congress in Beijing.

Lt-Gen Yang has collaborated with scientists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the University of Technology Sydney, particularly on research into supercomputing - a field that he has labelled as central to developing China's military technology, such as in combat aircraft and tactical nuclear weapons.

Concerns about the Chinese-Australian collaborations were raised in an Oct 28 article in Fairfax Media by two Australian researchers - Professor Clive Hamilton, a prominent author and the vice-chancellor's chair at Charles Sturt University; and Mr Alex Joske, a Mandarin-speaking, China-focused researcher and student at the Australian National University.

The article has added to the growing debate in Australia over apparent attempts by Beijing to exercise influence on the nation's campuses. It follows recent concerns about Beijing's attempts to interfere with campus activities, including using student organisations to monitor Chinese international students and local teaching staff.

The article named numerous scientists with links to the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), who have been based at leading Australian universities such as the Australian National University (ANU), UNSW and Curtin University.

"The PLA university's international collaborations are heavily concentrated in Australia, taking advantage of the large number of Chinese-heritage scientists at Australian universities," said the article. "The optics of Australian scientists working closely with researchers linked to the PLA are a matter of deep concern."

OPEN FIELD

What high-tech fields don't have potential for military applications? Does this mean we stop collaborating with the world's best on the technologies of the future?

PROFESSOR JAMES LAURENCESON, of University of Technology Sydney, on concerns over research partnerships between Australian universities and Chinese scientists.

The article said the NUDT has sent numerous scientists on exchange to top Australian universities, including at least 14 who passed through ANU while pursuing doctorates.

"Most if not all of those students are PLA cadres who have since returned to Chinese military institutions, after working in advanced fields like robotics, optics, materials science and computer vision while at ANU," the article said.

In response, the universities have insisted they had adequate risk assessment procedures, noting that foreign staff members must have appropriate visas.

Critics said that the article encouraged unnecessary "panic" about the growing links between China and Australia.

The deputy director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, Professor James Laurenceson, said the article's allegations "deserve an airing". But he said the claims were based on scientific papers co-authored by Australian and Chinese researchers published in publicly accessible journals.

"What high-tech fields don't have potential for military applications? Does this mean we stop collaborating with the world's best on the technologies of the future?" he said in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday.

But Prof Hamilton told The Straits Times the growing overlap between civilian and military technology made it more important to scrutinise further collaboration.

He said he and his colleague began their probe after noticing that numerous visiting Chinese scientists had links to the PLA.

"The more we looked, the more we found," Prof Hamilton said. "It is very unwise for Australia, given future scenarios of possible conflict between the two countries (Australia and China)."

In recent months, Australian officials have begun to call for universities to do more to avoid undue foreign interference.

And as the debate about this influence continues, such calls are only likely to grow louder.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2017, with the headline 'Unease in Australia over research tie-ups with China scientists'. Print Edition | Subscribe