Taxpayers are funding university programs with the links and capacity to help develop China’s advanced weapons capacity, new research obtained by The Weekend Australian reveals.
“Beneath the radar, Australian universities are helping give China the technological leadership” in advanced military and industrial technology “it craves”, the researchers say.
The work, published in The Weekend Australian today, is from Clive Hamilton, holder of the vice-chancellor’s chair in public ethics at Charles Sturt University, who is writing a book on Chinese influence in Australia, and Australian National University student Alex Joske, who has written several reports on the issue.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham responded yesterday: “The government takes these reports extremely seriously. While safeguards are in place to ensure sensitive and strategic technologies are handled appropriately, I have sought additional briefing on this matter.”
The research provides a factual basis to underline crucial concerns already raised by the growing debate in the past year on the nature of institutional links between Australia and China. The core funding vehicle Mr Hamilton and Mr Joske highlight is the Australian Research Council, whose linkage 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”.
For instance, last year the ARC awarded a $400,000 grant to Adelaide University for a research partnership with the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials, which is part of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. Government-owned AVIC is the major supplier of military aircraft to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.
As Mr Hamilton and Mr Joske say, “when the PLA unveiled its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, it was loaded with Shenyang J-15 fighter jets built by AVIC”.
The Adelaide University project is intended to help develop materials and devices that, the ARC’s proposal says, “are comfortable, quiet and energy-efficient” for use in aircraft, motor vehicles and ships. The authors point out: “It will also enhance the PLA Air Force’s capacity to improve the performance of its most sophisticated warplanes.”
An Adelaide University spokesman responded: “The project is funded entirely within the rules of the ARC and holds the prospect of delivering more durable rubber products that have greater tolerance to wear and temperature variation. The carbon-infused rubber might find future use in improved tyres, seals, insulation, shoes or even playground mats. The University of Adelaide maintains ownership of the intellectual property, which will be available for licence to potential users worldwide.”
Mr Hamilton and Mr Joske say the research team for this and other projects funded by the ARC includes personnel in Australia and China with close links with Chinese institutions that routinely undertake significant military-industrial projects.
For instance, researchers at the University of NSW, National Instruments Australia and Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant, were last year awarded $466,000 by the ARC for a joint project. Yet after ASIO advice, the Australian government placed a ban on the use of Huawei equipment in the National Broadband Network.
UNSW deputy vice-chancellor (research) Nicholas Fisk said: “This is a peer-reviewed grant as part of Australia’s flagship ARC Linkage Program which is designed to foster collaboration between universities and industry as part of the national innovation system to generate economic, commercial and social benefit.”
This project, he said, was “a contribution to the Internet of Things, which will be critical in building Australia’s economic competitiveness and integration with the global knowledge economy in innovative fields including health, smart cities and home automation”.
“UNSW has strict protocols in place to ensure that all of our research is compliant with the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012,” Professor Fisk said. “As the outcomes of this project are published, they will be made available in the public domain.”
Two months ago, the University of Technology Sydney announced a partnership with the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation CETC) for a joint centre on advanced research into big-data technologies, metamaterials, advanced electronics and quantum computing and communications. CETC, which is contributing $20 million to the UTS centre, is primarily a military research organisation, an important component in China’s defence industry. Its own website a few years ago described the institution as “the national squad for military-industrial electronics”.
Last year, UTS began collaboration with the CETC Research Institute on Smart Cities. This institute’s work includes “public security early-warning preventive and supervisory abilities” and “cyberspace control abilities” — the technological heart of new measures being introduced by the Chinese government to tighten its control of daily life and to isolate and extract dissident views and behaviour.
The Global Big Data Technologies Group centre established at UTS collaborates with CETC. The Defence Science and Technology Group, the premier Australian government agency responsible for developing new military technology, is also a partner in the GBDTG.
There are at least eight scientists at UTS with strong connections to China’s Xidian University in Xi’an, Mr Hamilton and Mr Joske say.
The UTS has not received ARC funding for any of its Chinese collaborations.
The Xidian website boasts of its contributions to national defence technology.
The authors conclude that UTS appears to have become an unofficial outpost of China’s scientific research effort, “some of it with direct application to advancing the PLA’s fighting capability”. In the broader picture, “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.”
A spokesman said UTS had many international research collaborations, including with Chinese companies and research institutes, for building Australian capability and knowledge. “All international research is subject to the Australian Defence Trade Controls Act 2012,” he said. “UTS applies stringent safeguards to manage the integrity of its intellectual property, including research data, and has a robust governance structure in place to oversee the (GBDTG) centre.”
By ROWAN CALLICK