For several years the Chinese party-state has been pursuing a co-ordinated program to acquire from abroad advanced military and industrial technology, and to do so by fair means or foul.
It now emerges that Australian universities inadvertently are helping to give China the technological leadership it craves.
The Australian Research Council is funnelling Australian taxpayer funds into research with applications to China’s advanced weapons capacity through its linkage program.
The program aims to encourage national and international research collaborations between university researchers and partners in industry or other research centres, in this case with Chinese military scientists.
ARC awarded a three-year $400,000 grant to the University of Adelaide last year for a research partnership with the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials, part of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China.
AVIC is a state-owned enterprise and the main supplier of military aircraft to the People’s Liberation Army air force, including the J-20 stealth fighter, the fifth-generation FC-31 stealth fighter and attack drones. When the PLA unveiled its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, it was loaded with Shenyang J-15 fighter jets built by AVIC.
AVIC’s Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials describes itself as an “important part of the national defence science and technology innovation system”. The institute’s president, Dai Shenglong, doubles as its Communist Party secretary.
According to ARC, the linkage project with the University of Adelaide is “expected to make Australia capable of fabricating superior rubber-based materials and devices that are comfortable, quiet and energy efficient, for use in aircrafts (sic), cars and vessels”. It also will enhance the PLA Air Force’s capacity to improve the performance of its most sophisticated warplanes.
The research team that put the linkage grant idea to the AVIC company and lodged the application with ARC is listed as Shizhang Qiao, Tianyi Ma, Zhengtao Su and Wang Peng.
Qiao holds the chair of nanotechnology at the University of Adelaide and, among other appointments in China, is a visiting professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology’s college of chemical engineering, which hosts a state key laboratory that has taken up 34 national defence military-industrial projects. Ma is a research fellow at the University of Adelaide and Wang is a postdoctoral fellow there.
The other senior member of the team, Su Zhengtao, works at AVIC’s Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials. The bottom line of all this is that PLA-linked researchers, some at the University of Adelaide and one in China, are receiving funding from the Australian government to help enhance the effectiveness of China’s military aircraft. This may not be their intention but it is an inevitable risk when funding AVIC research.
According to close observers, China has embarked on “a deliberate state-sponsored project to circumvent the costs of research, overcome cultural disadvantages, and ‘leapfrog’ to the forefront by leveraging the creativity of other nations”. This is the warning made by William Hannas, James Mulvenon and Anna Puglisi in their definitive 2013 book Chinese Industrial Espionage.
Another expert, James McGregor, in a report for the US Chamber of Commerce, put it even more bluntly: China’s hi-tech research plan is a “blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before”.
So why would the Australian government be funding these ambitions, particularly when the technological advances are helping to build China’s military might?
The AVIC link is not the only Australian government grant likely to assist China’s military ambitions. Last year ARC awarded $466,000 to a joint research project between researchers at the University of NSW, National Instruments Australia and Huawei, the giant Chinese telecommunications firm.
Australia’s intelligence agencies believe Huawei is linked to the Third Department of the PLA, the military’s cyber-espionage arm, which led the federal government to place a ban on the use of Huawei equipment in Australia’s National Broadband Network.
ASIO’s assessment was influenced by a US congressional report that judged Huawei an espionage risk. It concluded that Huawei (along with Chinese telco ZTE) “cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems”. After trying and failing to get to the bottom of the company’s links with Chinese government agencies, the report branded Huawei executives evasive and deceitful.
The purpose of the ARC project is to research “massive connectivity and low latency machine-to-machine communications” and so contribute to a “new type of world-class wireless infrastructure”, research with obvious military and espionage uses.
One of Australia’s most astute Sinologists, John Fitzgerald, reminds us that China believes itself to be at war or in preparation for war (with Japan, Taiwan or the US) and that its scientific research strategy is governed by this overarching assumption. Technological supremacy lies at the heart of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of turning his nation into a world power.
Fitzgerald lays down a challenge: “Australians would do well to consider whether they shared that dream before aligning the country’s national research strategy too closely with China’s.” Yet we are in the middle of a major realignment of Australia’s scientific and technological research so that it contributes to the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions.
Lured by Chinese money, in recent years research organisations in the West have entered into hundreds of collaborative agreements with Chinese universities and research outfits, some of which have shadowy military and intelligence links.
The China Electronics Technology Group Corporation is a state-owned military research organisation, “one of China’s 10 official defence industry conglomerate-bureaucracies”, according to one expert. Its “sacred mission” is to help to build a “rich country, strong army”. At the same time it is collaborating closely with the University of Technology Sydney and benefiting from Australian government funds.
Many of the research institutes CETC operates were originally founded by and for the PLA, and they continue to receive military funding and do military research. In 2010 its website described the organisation as “the national squad for military-industrial electronics and the main force in the information industry”.
The civilian use of some of its technologies means their military applications can be obscured. But one expert, Matthew Luce, notes that while Huawei and ZTE deny any direct allegiance to the PLA, CETC is open, declaring that its purpose is “leveraging civilian electronics for the gain of the PLA”.
CETC has explored all avenues in its search for military technology — legal and illegal. In January 2011 a Massachusetts court sentenced Yufeng Wei to three years in prison, and her co-defendant Zhen Zhou Wu to eight years in prison, for conspiring to steal and export military electronics components and sensitive electronics used in military phased array radar, electronic warfare and missile systems. CETC was one of the organisations to be supplied with the stolen material.
In October 2010 York Yuan Chang and his wife Leping Huang were arrested in California on charges of conspiring to export restricted electronics technology to China without a licence and making false statements. They were alleged to have entered into contracts with the 24th Research Institute of CETC to design and transfer technology for the development of two types of high-performance analog-to-digital converters.
In April this year UTS announced a partnership with CETC for a new joint centre on advanced research into big data technologies, metamaterials, advanced electronics and quantum computing and communications. All of these have military or security applications. For example, China is investigating the use of metamaterials for the “PLA’s dream” of making “invisible” stealth aircraft. The Chinese state corporation is contributing $20 million to the UTS centre.
It continues the university’s previous work with CETC and follows an agreement signed with UTS vice-chancellor Attila Brungs to promote co-operation in technology research between the two institutions. The new joint research centre’s work is expected to link with the CSIRO, which previously bought antennas from CETC’s 54th Research Institute for the Square Kilometre Array.
UTS says it does not receive any ARC funding for its collaborations and is subject to scrutiny from federal authorities, as all Chinese partnerships must comply with the Australian Defence Trade Controls Act. That legislation polices international collaborations on sensitive research topics. UTS says the risks are carefully monitored and all projects are compliant with the defence trade controls act.
Last year UTS began a collaboration with CETC on research projects at the CETC Research Institute on Smart Cities, whose work includes “public security early warning preventive and supervisory abilities” and “cyberspace control abilities”.
A Xinhua report on CETC’s work on smart cities notes that it “integrates and connects civil — military dual-use technologies”.
Looking past its slick public face, CETC aims to assist the Chinese state to improve on the world’s most comprehensive and oppressive system of surveillance and control of its citizens.
As if all of this were not astonishing enough, UTS’s Global Big Data Technologies Centre — which covers mobile sensing and communications, computer vision, cloud computing and data intensive systems, and computational intelligence and brain computer interfaces — collaborates with CETC.
These big data technologies are expected to “transform defence intelligence analysis” and are of intense interest to the US and Australian military and intelligence services.
And of course the PLA, which has recommended “leveraging the nation’s big data project and the civil-military integration advanced development strategy to hasten the development of military big data”.
One of CETC’s co-partners at the UTS big data centre is the Defence Science and Technology Group (formerly Defence Science and Technology Organisation), the premier Australian government organisation charged with developing advanced science and technology for Australia’s armed forces. Secrets held by DSTG and CSIRO are believed to be among the “top targets” for China’s army of citizen spies, yet a Chinese military research organisation is working beside both of these. (UTS does not conduct joint research with DSTG and CETC, a university spokesman says.)
The GBDTC collaboration with CETC includes “cutting-edge wireless technologies for future telecommunications networks”, which may explain why Huawei also has partnered with the big data centre.
Eight scientists at UTS have connections to Xidian University, which emerged from the PLA’s Military Electronic Engineering Institute and remains intimately linked with China’s armed forces. Some of these UTS academics have conducted research and authored papers with counterparts at Xidian University.
That university’s website boasts of its contributions to national defence technology, describing itself as “standing out among the whole nation’s tertiary institutions, with a superior position in national defence technology research”, and claiming to be the alma mater of more than 120 PLA generals.
When the university announced a new school of cyber-engineering in 2015, China watchers interpreted it as beefing up China’s defence, espionage and warfare capabilities. One US expert noted that “Xidian’s close connection with the People’s Liberation Army” suggests the civilian-military link on cyber research.
UTS appears to have become an unofficial outpost of China’s scientific research effort, some with direct application to advancing the PLA’s fighting capability. (The university says there is no evidence of any breach of the defence trade controls act, which is expressly referred to in its joint research co-operation agreement.)
Moreover, Australia’s foremost scientific and technology organisations, including those with defence and intelligence responsibilities, are working hand-in-glove with researchers closely linked to PLA research centres.
By blithely contributing to enhancing the sophistication of China’s military and intelligence technology, there could be no better evidence of Australia’s extraordinary naivety towards China and its methods.
President Xi declared last year that the “powerful engine of technological innovation” will drive the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people. The People’s Republic of China appears to have effectively mobilised some of Australia’s most valuable intellectual resources, not to mention public funds, to help fuel that engine.
Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. Alex Joske is a researcher and student at the Australian National University.
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