Scholars hide military links from Western universities

China’s military has been expanding research collaboration with universities outside China, with more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers sponsored to study abroad in the past decade, according to a new report. It warns that Western universities and governments may not be fully aware of the legitimate security concerns that could arise, particularly as scholars often obscure their military affiliations.

International research collaboration by China’s military “focuses on hard sciences, especially emerging and dual-use technologies”, said Alex Joske, author of the report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a non-partisan think-tank. Dual-use technology refers to technology with both civilian and military applications.

The report calls for better vetting of scientists who might have links with China’s military, and the creation of a list of Chinese military-linked research institutions, including civilian universities heavily engaged in military research.

Research collaboration between the Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – and Western universities is strongest with the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada – part of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ countries that share intelligence data – according to the just-released report Picking Flowers, Making Honey: The Chinese military’s collaboration with foreign universities.

The Five Eyes countries treat China as one of their main intelligence adversaries, according to the report.

“Nearly all PLA scientists sent abroad are Chinese Communist Party members who return to China on time. Dozens of PLA scientists have obscured their military affiliations to travel to Five Eyes countries and the European Union,” the study says.

“While foreign universities’ ties with the PLA have grown, it isn’t clear that universities have developed an understanding of the PLA and how their collaboration with it differs from familiar forms of scientific collaboration,” it adds.

The top five countries engaged in research collaboration with the PLA in 2017 were the US, UK Canada, Australia and Germany in that order.

The report estimates that since 2007 around 500 Chinese military scientists have been sent to each of the UK and the US, roughly 300 each to Australia and Canada and more than 100 each to Germany and Singapore. Other receiving countries include Sweden, Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan and France.

However, a 2014 document published by the PLA National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) claimed it had established academic relationships with more than 100 universities and research units in more than 50 countries and regions. China’s Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, claimed that in addition to agreements with Oxford and Cambridge universities, NUDT had established ‘overseas study bases’ at institutions including Harvard University.

Top collaboration countries

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, has the highest level of PLA collaboration with more than 125 joint publications between 2006 and 2017, followed by Australia’s University of New South Wales with just under 120, the UK’s University of Southampton and Canada’s University of Waterloo with over 110 joint publications each, and the UK’s University of Manchester, the National University of Singapore, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Australian National University with more than 80 joint publications each.

It adds that there is little evidence that “universities are making any meaningful distinction between collaboration with the Chinese military and the rest of their collaboration with China”.

The PLA describes embedding military scientists in Western universities as “picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China”, the report notes. “The PLA’s programme of sending scientists abroad is different from standard military exchanges, in which military officers visit each other’s institutions. Those open exchanges build understanding, communication and relationships between militaries.”

In contrast, NUDT – the military’s largest science and technology university which has in the past sent roughly a third of its PhD scholars abroad – appears to separate military exchanges from its international research ties. The latter “are concentrated in foreign universities and not military institutions”, the report says.

Around half of the PLA scientists sent abroad are PhD scholars who either complete their doctorates overseas or spend up to two years as visiting PhD scholars. However, most come from NUDT or the Army Engineering University. The number of peer-reviewed articles co-authored by PLA scientists in collaboration with overseas scientists has grown from around 100 in 2008 to more than 730 last year, according to Scopus data.

The remaining half are sent overseas for short-term trips, spending up to a year as visiting scholars. “Few of those scientists have left online traces of their time overseas,” according to the report.

Disguising military affiliations

“Some of those travelling overseas have actively used cover to disguise their military affiliations, claiming to be from non-existent academic institutions,” according to the report, which says it has identified two dozen new cases of PLA scientists travelling abroad and obscuring their military affiliations, at least 17 of these in Australia.

An NUDT document for students hoping to study abroad advises that “military and political courses can be excluded” from their academic records when applying to foreign institutions.

NUDT itself has been externally known in the past as Changsha Institute of Technology, an institution subsumed by NUDT in the 1970s.

Scientists from the PLA Rocket Force University of Engineering, a key research base for the PLA Rocket Force, claim to be from the ‘Xi’an Research Institute of High Technology’ “which appears to only exist on paper”, according to the report. It says at least five of the institution’s scientists travelled to Britain, Germany and Norway as visiting scholars claiming to be from the Xi’an Research Institute of High Technology.

Nine scientists attending an international symposium on mobile mapping technology hosted by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in December 2015 claimed to be from Zhengzhou Institute of Surveying and Mapping, which no longer exists, having been subsumed in 1999 by PLA Information Engineering University, an institution described by the report as a “major player in cyber operations and a key training ground for signals intelligence officers”.

“The Zhengzhou Institute appears to live on as cover for PLA scientists interacting with foreigners. Nearly 300 peer-reviewed papers have been published by authors claiming to be from the institute,” the report says.

The study names Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute, which only exists on paper, as another one widely used by PLA scientists to publish research and travel overseas, with more than 1,300 peer-reviewed papers authored by researchers claiming to be from the institute.

Sending institutions

Other PLA visiting scholars going abroad came from the Northwestern Institute of Nuclear Technology, which works on nuclear and high-power microwave weapons; the Chemical Defense Institute of the Academy of Military Science, which specialises in chemical weapons research; the Navy Submarine Academy, Qingdao; the Academy of Armored Forces Engineering, Beijing, which works on tank technology; China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center; the Rocket Force University of Engineering, which conducts research for China’s missile programmes; and the Academy of Equipment Command and Technology, which in 2007 sent a specialist in anti-satellite weaponry to the University of Michigan using civilian cover, according to the report.

Within China “the PLA’s overseas research collaboration is described in frank terms”, the report notes and is seen as a way to leverage overseas expertise, research and training to develop better military technology.

For example, one Chinese ministry of education publication stated that a collaboration with the University of Cambridge to train visiting PLA students will “greatly raise the nation’s power in the fields of national defence, communications, anti-jamming for imaging and high-precision navigation”.

A handful of overseas universities defend PLA collaborations, including UNSW, which the report says has published the most peer-reviewed literature in collaboration with PLA scientists. The university’s deputy vice-chancellor said last year that “any fears that our intellectual property or security is undermined through our work with international partners are entirely unfounded”.

Australia’s Curtin University said in 2017 that work by its scientists with PLA experts on explosions and projectiles “does not violate any laws and is civilian research”.