US export controls raise research collaboration concerns

As more and more Chinese universities and institutions are added to United States government lists to control exports and other exchanges, including research, universities are becoming more nervous about falling foul of the rules.

The move by the Bureau of Industry and Security of the US Department of Commerce to add Chinese institutions to its ‘Entity List’ is seen as a way for the US to protect the transfer of ‘sensitive’ technologies. For some universities it means extra paperwork, while others could be deterred from collaborating with listed Chinese universities or from university-industry collaborations for fear of inadvertently breaking the rules.

Dozens of Chinese firms and universities have been added to the US Entity List, which also included telecoms giant Huawei and some 68 non-US affiliates of the company in 26 countries for the first time in May – though subject to a 90-day waiver. Inclusion on the list requires US universities to seek permission for certain types of research collaboration as it applies to “controlled US-origin content”.

“We’ve seen a really big increase in the number of Chinese institutions on the Entity List in the past two or three years and I’d expect to see a lot more Chinese universities going on there in the future, just because there’s much greater attention on US technological competition with China, and the list is being used more and more as a tool,” says Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who has extensively researched the Chinese military’s collaboration with foreign universities.

Coming on top of delayed visas and visa rejections for some Chinese professors wanting to travel to the US for research collaborations, and limiting visas to Chinese postgraduate students in STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), it could effectively put some research collaborations with Chinese universities on ice, academics fear.

“This kind of broad approach is new,” says Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre, Singapore, which monitors high-tech exchanges, referring to the inclusion of universities and new areas of research.

“There are two ways to read the Entity List. One is that it is an attempt by the United States to crack down on institutions on the list. But the second way to read it is that the expansion of the Entity List – and also the inclusion of Huawei – is a negotiating tactic designed to increase the pressure on China to come to the table on the larger trade issues,” Elms says.

This use of the Entity List “would be damaging for research collaborations between the US and China, but there would be many people in Washington who would say, ‘that’s fine because of the larger goal’,” Elms says. “In fact, they would say the list should probably be much bigger.”

Growing number of universities on list

The Department of Commerce last year listed some 44 Chinese entities, including universities and research institutions, and this year extended the list, including more universities. They include the prestigious Sun Yat-sen University in southern Guangdong province and the large Sichuan University, which has many overseas partnerships.

More concerning, as the list broadens from highly specialised military and dual-use entities to major Chinese universities, is the overall effect on US-China research collaborations, as new areas of research rivalry are targeted, such as supercomputing.

“The original conception of the US Entity List seems to have been quite narrow, targeting weapons-style technology, which is why National University of Defense Technology and Beihang University (Beijing Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics) were on there quite early,” Joske told University World News. Beihang University was already listed in 2015.

“But we’re seeing broader uses of the Entity List, such as the inclusion of Huawei, which is definitely not related to weapons of mass destruction,” Joske said.

“Sichuan University was added to the Entity List as an alias of the China Academy of Engineering Physics, which is China’s nuclear weapons facility. They are both situated in Sichuan University,” Joske told University World News, describing it as equivalent to Los Alamos, the US nuclear facility in New Mexico. The China Academy of Engineering Physics has been on the Entity List since the early 2000s.

Sichuan University’s inclusion on the Entity List implies that it was trying to do things on behalf of the Academy to try and get round the Entity List,” Joske said.

New additions

Most recently, on 18 June, another four Chinese technology companies, Hunan Guofang Kei University and a research institute – the Wuxi Jiangnan Institute of Computing Technology – were put on the list. The Jiangnan institute is reportedly involved in high-end supercomputers which the US believes could be used for military purposes.

According to the Federal Register notification, “Wuxi Jiangnan Institute of Computing Technology is owned by the 56th Research Institute of the General Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Its mission is to support China’s military modernisation.”

The National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) was already on the Entity List in February 2015. “Since then, NUDT has procured items under the name Hunan Guofang Kei University using four separate, additional addresses not already listed on the Entity List,” according to the notification.

NUDT and three or four other national supercomputing centres were added to the list at the same time, Joske said. “All of these supercomputing centres were set up together and they use supercomputing to develop and test nuclear weapons, and that’s the primary reason, it seems, why Sun Yat-sen University was placed on the Entity List.”

Sun Yat-sen’s listing is restricted to its National Supercomputing Center.

Effect on broader collaborations between universities

Whereas in the past Chinese universities liked to include all kinds of external research institutions under their umbrella, Joske notes that universities like Sun Yat-sen are becoming “more restrained and cautious” about including organisations on the Entity List.

“I suspect that they still have substantial collaborations with the US, so as a tool for stopping research collaborations between academics, the Entity List may not be particularly effective – you still see high numbers of national universities collaborating with American institutions,” Joske says.

“The list is not necessarily a ban; it covers certain categories of exports and there is still a review process and you can obtain a waiver. It only covers certain technologies and will differ for each [Chinese] university,” Joske notes.

However, this may change in the current climate, with US authorities ramping up scrutiny and new lists being extended, such as the ‘unverified list’.

Unverified list

Some 37 Chinese firms and universities were added in April to the Department of Commerce’s so-called ‘unverified list’.

They include Changchun Institute of Applied Chemistry, which the department says specialises in research in the fields of defence and economic development, Guangdong University of Technology, Nanchang University, Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Renmin University of China and Tongji University in Shanghai. The last two are large and prestigious multi-faculty universities.

With the ‘unverified list’, the department says, it “could not verify their bona fides because an end-use check could not be completed satisfactorily for reasons outside the US government’s control”.

With the Entity List “the Commerce Department is pretty sure, so we know that they are supported by the military so we’ve got to be careful”, says Margaret Chester, export compliance specialist in the Office of Ethics and Compliance at Pennsylvania State University, speaking in her personal capacity rather than for the university.

But with the ‘unverified’ list, “we are not sure this isn’t just some front for some other activity in China, so we tag that institution,” she says, referring to commercial screening software which updates lists within 24 hours and allows users to put red flags or tags on certain entities.

Chester said: “For a visiting Chinese person coming from one of these entities on the list or on the unverified list institutions, there are other kinds of research they can’t do. They can’t go into secured labs; they can only work on the completely open and public research.”

Larger US universities and universities which have defence contracts have dedicated export compliance teams in place and conduct checks when an entity pops up on an unverified list, but some universities prefer to stay away from such collaborations altogether, rather than face the hassles and paperwork required for licences. This does not bode well for collaborations with China.

“A number of universities in the US will not accept projects that involve controlled technology,” says Chester.

Broad approach

But even for those with compliance officers, the workload related to China is rising, and could increase further.

The Department of Commerce has already issued a list of possible “emerging technologies”, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics (including drones), advanced surveillance technologies and advanced materials, including biomaterials that may be subject to new export controls in future due to their importance for national security. It is currently seeking opinions on this list, which could affect research collaborations still further.

The list is seen as highly problematic. “I cannot identify today a list of emerging technologies that should be prioritised into the future. In fact, I would argue that we cannot know ahead of time the specific technologies that will be crucial to US national security,” said Samm Sacks, Cybersecurity Policy and China Digital Economy Fellow at New America, a think tank.

In particular, she notes a possible extension to artificial intelligence (AI) research. In written testimony for the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 8 May, Sacks wrote that many AI applications are inherently dual-use, with both civilian and military applications. For example, facial recognition tools could be used to target drone strikes as well as to identify customers in a store.

AI “research is often done collaboratively through networks of engineers around the world that do not conform neatly to national borders. Once code and other AI-related capabilities are published openly, it is virtually impossible to control their diffusion,” she said in her testimony.

She adds: “The United States derives benefit from joint research with Chinese partners in the form of access to talent and to cutting-edge work in areas where US and Chinese researchers are working to find answers to similar problems. Innovation now flows both ways across the Pacific. There are also national security risks to losing visibility and insight into the advancements of Chinese researchers and companies.”

Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, and a leading expert on the Chinese military, echoes this sentiment. “These restrictions – especially of the Entity List – will add to an environment where research collaboration between the US and Chinese academic systems will be increasingly difficult and subject to suspicion from both the US and Chinese regulatory and security authorities,” he says.

Besides the legal and regulatory issues involved, “a climate of distrust is spreading at a rapid pace when it comes to US-China research exchanges. We are still in the early stages of this effort to decouple the US and Chinese technological relationship, but the trajectory towards a comprehensive and deep break is accelerating,” Cheung told University World News.