China will target radar technology and quantum computing under development in Sydney and Canberra to advance its military capabilities and outmatch Australia, former defence officials warn.
Defence experts, including national security consultant to the government Ross Babbage, are alarmed by the speed of Australia’s response to the threat of technological theft and transfer from China, potentially allowing Beijing to secure access to Australian technology.
Dr Babbage, a former assistant defence secretary, said there was a “degree of naivety” from Australia in regards to the threat, citing concerns at maintaining security over critical research in universities and China’s attempts to position its people in Australia and allied countries.
“It’s simply not true that the Chinese government or for that matter sometimes the Russians are not interested, they are very, very interested in getting their hands on our research in key areas,” he said.
Dr Babbage, speaking to The Australian from Washington, said defence-related technologies being developed in Sydney and Canberra, as well as at universities, were of growing interest to China.
“Firstly, the quantum computing work in Sydney is something which the Chinese have said publicly on numerous occasions is a priority. They’re spending huge amounts of money on getting quantum computing applied not only to things like code breaking but next generation radar, stealth technology — there are lots of different applications,” he said.
“Even in Canberra, the CEA technologies or the over-the-horizon radar … that is an area where the Chinese are working very hard to catch up.
“Apart from raw technology, often it’s to work with our brightest and sharpest people to build people who can go back to critical positions in their organisations either in the PLA or in the intelligence agencies. So it’s not just to lift technologies.”
Former senior defence intelligence official Michael Shoebridge identified similar Australian technologies as possible targets of Chinese military interest and said Beijing would also be interested in the future submarine program.
“Any technologies related to hypersonics are another good example, weapons research, over-the-horizon radar research and capability because Australia is a world leader in that and there’s a continuing research element of that,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“(Also) things like advanced undersea technologies related to the future submarine and all of the research support to that.”
Mr Shoebridge said the current regime was inadequate as it depended on risk self-assessments by universities. “The universities self-assess if there’s national security risk and if there is, then they approach Defence … I don’t think they’re making many assessments,” he said.
“What’s changed is Defence’s understanding of the risk … They see more risk in research partnerships. You can ask is it in Australia’s national interest to advance the military capability of the PLA through our research organisations and universities and I don’t think it is.”
Chinese government IP and technology theft, as well as the legal transfer of US technology to China, has emerged as a key plank in Washington’s trade complaints against the communist nation.
The US is concerned about issues such as Chinese firms buying out tech advances, the Chinese government forcing US firms operating in China to hand over technology in exchange for market access, and PLA researchers working in US universities and feeding their expertise back into the Chinese military.
Concerns raised by senior Australian security analysts have surfaced amid a hostile response from Australian universities, technology start-ups and business to a Department of Defence proposal to deal with the problem by drastically widening the amount of technology overseen by government controls and expanding search powers of university campuses.
Government sources said the proposed changes were related to concerns as to whether the Defence Trade Controls Act adequately safeguarded Australia’s defence capabilities.
The Department of Defence laid out “sweeping” demands for search and seizure powers in universities and scrutiny of foreign passport holders conducting tech research in Australia in a submission to a new review of defence export controls.
Concerns were raised last year that collaboration between researchers and Chinese companies may be benefiting the People’s Liberation Army. Universities say Defence wants to extend its powers to regulate the transfer of military technology overseas to all technology being developed in Australia because of concerns over “dual-use” tech that has civilian and defence applications.
An academic behind a cutting-edge quantum computing start-up said the Defence Department’s proposed controls laws could shut down his entire industry.
The founder of a Silicon Valley-backed Australian quantum computing start-up Q-Ctrl, Michael Biercuk, said the review could “absolutely destroy” the ability of companies like his to do research if the department was able to unilaterally decide which technology faced strict export controls.
“If Defence unilaterally determines that quantum computing is a strategic priority area and therefore it can’t be exported, then all the research we do as well as all the products we build in Q-Ctrl are not saleable,” Professor Biercuk said.
The Defence Department yesterday did not rule out requiring extra resources to police their proposed new regime. “As the review has not been finalised, it is too early to consider resource implications,” a spokesman said.
The department also reassured universities, researchers and business they would take their concerns into account. “The review process was always designed to include a second round of written consultations and roundtable events, with all stakeholders given the opportunity to comment on any submission made in the first round,” the spokesman said.