Growing unease in Australia over research partnerships with Chinese scientists

The University of New South Wales in Sydney, one of the Australian universities which have collaborated with Chinese scientists.
The University of New South Wales in Sydney, one of the Australian universities which have collaborated with Chinese scientists.PHOTO: ST FILE

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

Many of the partnerships were reportedly developed by a leading Chinese military researcher, Lieutenant-General Yang Xuejun, who was recently made a member of the party's 204-member Central Committee at the party's 19th National Congress in Beijing.

Lieutenant-General 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 combat aircraft and tactical nuclear weapons.

Concerns about the Chinese-Australian collaborations were raised in an article in Fairfax Media on Oct 28 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 (ANU).

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 National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), who have been based at leading Australian universities such as the 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, published on Oct 28.

"The optics of Australian scientists working closely with researchers linked to the PLA are a matter of deep concern."

The article said the NUDT has sent numerous scientists on exchange to top Australian universities, including at least 14 who passed through the 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 insisted they had adequate risk assessment procedures, noting that foreign staff members must have appropriate visas.

But 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 Chines researchers published in publicly-accessible journals.

"Just think about that for a moment: after acquiring the most advanced knowledge that Australia had to offer, PLA-linked researchers apparently decided to make their cutting-edge research findings publicly available and, conveniently for us, in their second language," he said in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday (Nov 8).

He added: "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?"

However, Prof Hamilton said criticisms such as that voiced by Prof Laurenceson were "absurd", saying the researchers would ensure that "the most militarily important research" was left out of any journal articles.

He told The Straits Times that the growing overlap between civilian and military technology only made it more important to scrutinise further collaboration.

Prof Hamilton said he and his colleague began their investigation after noticing that numerous visiting Chinese scientists had links to the Chinese military.

"The more we looked, the more we found," he 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 need to do more to avoid undue foreign interference. As the debate about this influence continues, such calls are only likely to grow louder.