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    Picking Flowers, Making Honey

    Picking Flowers, Making Honey: The Chinese Military’s Collaboration with Foreign Universities.
    According to the studies and findings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has beefed up its researching collaboration with the world's top universities outside of China. Since 2007, the PLA has sent over 2,500 military scientists and engineers on the mission to go and study at selected institutions across the globe.

    The main objective is to exploit and harvest technology and research from the world's top-ranking universities using open sources available in the Five Eyes countries, Germany, the US, UK, Australia, Singapore, and other fewer countries. Nearly all PLA scientists sent abroad are military personnel who posed as civilian students. Dozens of PLA scientists their military affiliations is very obscured and travel to targeted which are Five Eyes countries and European Union where they work in technologically oriented projects and researches such as hypersonic physics, navigation technology, and nuclear studies.

    What is ASPI? 

    The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) that was formed in 2001 as an independent, non-partisan think tank. Its core aim is to provide the Australian Government with fresh ideas on Australia’s defence, security and strategic policy choices. ASPI is responsible for informing the public on a range of strategic issues, generating new thinking for government and harnessing strategic thinking internationally. The ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre’s mission is to shape the debate, policy, and understanding of the cyber world, conduct research and make a consultation with government, business, and civil society.


    The Chinese military’s collaboration with foreign universities

    The activities discussed in this paper, described by the PLA as a process of ‘picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China’ (异国采花,中华酿蜜), risk harming the West’s strategic advantage. Helping a rival military develop its expertise and technology isn’t in the national interest, yet it’s not clear that Western universities and governments are fully aware of this phenomenon. Some universities have failed to respond to legitimate security concerns in their engagement with China. Current policies by governments and universities have not fully addressed issues like the transfer of knowledge and technology through collaboration with the PLA. The government policy towards universities that working with the PLA is also lacking understanding about the intention of PLA collaboration.

    While universities haven’t self-regulated on this issue and haven’t controlled the associated security risks, universities and researchers will not effectively limit the risks of PLA collaboration on their own until governments develop clear policies on it. Governments need to explore a wider range of tools for limiting technology transfer, including better scrutiny of visa applications by Chinese military scientists and further legislation targeting military end-users. Governments should also consider increasing funding to strategic science and technology fields, while actively limiting problematic foreign investment in those fields. Universities must recognize the risks of such collaboration and seek to learn the extent and nature of their collaboration with the PLA by actively working with government, civil society and security professionals.

    In 2017, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that ‘Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency and the free flow of ideas.’7 This collaborative and open spirit, including collaboration with Chinese scientists, has led to some of the great scientific achievements of recent times.8 While countries such as Australia and the US pride themselves on their scientific achievements, their universities and research institutes face limited or declining domestic funding.9 To address these issues, many universities have turned to China—an emerging scientific powerhouse that has sought to build ties to scientific communities around the world.10 This collaboration has generally been a productive and welcome part of the Australia–China relationship.

    The Chinese military has also ridden this wave of research collaboration, sponsoring more than 2,500 scientists to travel to universities in technologically advanced countries such as Australia as students or visiting scholars over the past decade. The volume of peer-reviewed literature produced by PLA scientists in collaboration with foreign scientists each year has grown steadily since 2008, following increases in the number of PLA scientists sent abroad. Those scientists work in strategic and emerging technology sectors such as quantum physics, signal processing, cryptography, navigation technology and autonomous vehicles. The PLA’s program 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, the PLA National University of Defense Technology (NUDT, 解放军国防科学技术大学) appears to conceive of its military exchanges separately from its international research ties, which are concentrated in foreign universities and not military institutions. Scientists sent abroad by the PLA have minimal or no interaction with military personnel in their host countries. Some of those travelling overseas have actively used cover to disguise their military affiliations, claiming to be from non-existent academic institutions. Around half of those sent abroad are Ph.D. scholars who either complete their doctorates overseas or spend up to two years as visiting Ph.D. scholars and who can usually be identified by searching peer-reviewed literature. While most come from NUDT, the Army Engineering University is another major source.

    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. 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. To date, there’s been no significant public discussion on why universities should be directly contributing to the technology of a non-allied military. Importantly, there’s also little evidence that universities are making any meaningful distinction between collaboration with the Chinese military and the rest of their collaboration with China.

    A handful of universities have strongly defended their collaboration with the PLA. Among universities in Five Eyes countries, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has published the most peer-reviewed literature in collaboration with PLA scientists. After attracting scrutiny for this collaboration, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor wrote, ‘Any fears that our intellectual property or security is undermined through our work with international partners are entirely unfounded.’ Australia’s Curtin University has described its collaboration with the PLA in similar terms, insisting that work by its scientists with PLA experts on explosions and projectiles doesn’t violate any laws and is civilian research.

    Government research agencies have also engaged in collaboration with the PLA. For example, researchers at the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have collaborated with NUDT scientists on cloud computing technology. Those same NUDT scientists were using cloud computing technology for combat simulations. Large sums of government funds have been used for collaboration with PLA scientists. One professor at UNSW, for instance, worked with PLA scientists using Australian Research Council grants worth $2.3 million.18 Internationally, defense funding has also been used for research with PLA scientists; for example, a paper written by University of Manchester scientists with a visiting student from NUDT lists US Air Force and Navy grants as funding sources.

    International military-civil fusion

    Lieutenant-General Yang Xuejun (杨学军), who oversaw a substantial rise in NUDT’s overseas links when he was its president from 2011 to 2017, appears to be one of the key figures behind this phenomenon. NUDT, as the Chinese military’s largest science and technology university, can be seen as representative of broader initiatives in this area. The university is the main source of PLA scientists studying abroad and by 2013 had reportedly sent more than 1,600 scientists overseas as students or visiting scholars, including roughly a third of its PhD scholars.

    An article written by NUDT scholars claims that the university received 300m renminbi ($A60m) from the Chinese government to send 765 graduate students to study abroad. According to General Yang, who has implied that NUDT’s overseas ties are a form of military-civil fusion, the university ‘has already reaped great benefits from going down the open university path and the military-civil fusion road’.

    General Yang’s promotion to membership of the 205-member 19th CCP Central Committee and to the leadership of the Academy of Military Sciences, the PLA’s premier research institution, reflects Xi Jinping’s emphasis on ‘rejuvenating the military with science and technology’. It was probably also a recognition of the success with which Yang developed NUDT’s international ties. Yang, himself a supercomputer expert, has collaborated extensively with UNSW and ran the program to develop the Tianhe-1A supercomputer, once ranked as the world’s fastest supercomputer. The NUDT supercomputer program’s role in nuclear weapons testing led to NUDT being placed on the US Government’s Entity List in 2015, meaning that the university faces stricter export controls, yet substantial numbers of NUDT scientists continue to train outside China, including in the US, the UK

    The PLA encourages scientists to work on areas of interest to the military while they’re overseas. For example, a 2016 article by NUDT specialists in graduate student education recommends that, in choosing where to study overseas, students’ first priority should be the relevance of the research direction of an overseas institution to their work in China, as they ‘must comprehensively consider the continuity of their research work when in China with that when they are studying overseas’. When students are overseas, the report adds, they should ‘fully take advantage of the cutting-edge research conditions and the environment abroad’ and ‘map out the arrangements of their overseas research and their plans for research after returning to China’. This alignment of domestic and overseas work indicates that the cases of PLA scientists gaining skills while in Australia that they then use for military projects aren’t outliers; they’re representative examples.

    Sources of and destinations for PLA scientists

    PLA scientists come from a wide range of institutions and disciplines within the Chinese military. Analyzing peer-reviewed publications co-authored by PLA scientists and overseas scientists indicates that the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and Germany were, in that order, the top five countries engaged in research collaboration with the PLA in 2017. Those countries appear to be the primary destinations for PLA scientists sent abroad

    PLA scientists sent abroad as visiting scholars came from institutions such as:

    • The Northwestern Institute of Nuclear Technology (西北核技术研究所), which works on nuclear and high-power microwave weapons 
    • The Chemical Defense Institute of the Academy of Military Sciences (军事科学院防化研究院), which specializes in chemical weapons research and has sent a sarin gas expert overseas 
    • The Navy Submarine Academy (海军潜艇学院) in Qingdao 
    • The Armored Forces Engineering Academy (装甲兵工程学院) in Beijing, which works on tank technology 
    • The China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center (中国空气动力研究与发展中心), which has sent scramjet researchers to study overseas 
    • The Rocket Force Engineering University (火箭军工程大学), which conducts research for China’s missile programs
    • The Academy of Equipment Command and Technology (装备指挥技术学院), which in 2007 sent a specialist in anti-satellite weaponry to the University of Michigan using civilian cover.


    The volume of peer-reviewed literature co-authored by PLA researchers and overseas researchers is a rough indicator of the level of PLA collaboration at each university. The information indicates that the leading countries for PLA collaboration by this measure for 2017 were, in order, the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Germany, indicating that they’re likely to be the main destinations for PLA scientists studying abroad. Singapore, Sweden and the Netherlands are other major destinations for PLA scientists. Over the past decade, Australia has been engaged in the highest level of this collaboration among the Five Eyes countries per capita, at six times the level in the US. It’s also possible to estimate the number of PLA scientists sent to each country since 2007, based on the above findings.

    Approximately 500 Chinese military scientists were 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. Hundreds more have been sent to other countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan and France. , the same dataset, shows the top 10 universities outside China for PLA collaboration. Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has the highest level of PLA collaboration, followed closely by UNSW in Australia. Other universities in Canada, Australia, the UK and the Netherlands also engage in high levels of collaboration with the PLA.


    The PLA’s links to universities across the world go beyond student admissions. The Chinese military, through its own universities and research institutions, has worked to build relationships with overseas universities and leading overseas researchers. A 2014 document published by NUDT claimed that the university had recruited 20 foreign nationals as teachers and ‘established academic relationships with over 100 universities and research units in over 50 countries and regions.

    Scientists from Australia, the UK and the US are listed as potential doctoral supervisors for NUDT students in 2018.37 NUDT has also built ties with overseas universities at the institutional level. For example, NUDT’s Quantum Information Interdisciplinary Talent Training Program cooperates with the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. The People’s Daily claimed that, in addition to agreements with Oxford and Cambridge, NUDT has established ‘overseas study bases’ at institutions including Harvard University. New Zealand’s Massey University also signed a memorandum of understanding with NUDT in 2008.

    Maintaining loyalty to the CCP

    The PLA, as the armed wing of the CCP, insists that all overseas party members strictly abide by ‘external exchange discipline standards’.According to the PLA Daily, ‘the openness of internationally expanding talent cultivation does not represent a “relaxation”, and we certainly cannot “let go”.’42 General Yang Xuejun has also specifically warned of the need to carefully manage military secrets while increasing the university’s openness. Those permitted to study overseas go through intensive training prior to their departure and are ‘all budding shoots with good grades and strong potential for innovation’.

    Alongside academic credentials, political credentials are also of key importance for military scientists hoping to study abroad. The PLA Daily warns that, if students sent overseas ‘develop issues with their politics and ideology, the consequences would be inconceivable (后果不堪设想)’.45NUDT therefore appears to sponsor only CCP members for overseas study and works hard to maintain their loyalty to the party and negate ‘all kinds of harmful ideologies’.Reportedly, all 200 students and researchers from NUDT who were studying or visiting overseas in 2013 were party members.47

    The People’s Daily claimed in 2013 that students sent overseas by NUDT had established eight party branches overseas and organized events for party members, so that ‘personnel studying abroad would keep their convictions rock-solid’ (坚守信念如磐). Another report from 2015 claimed that NUDT’s College of Optoelectric Science and Engineering alone had established 10 overseas party branches. More recent reports hint that such branches are still being established. For example, party media reported in October 2017 that students from one of NUDT’s colleges had established a WeChat group for the college’s more than 30 students overseas to study the 19th Party Congress.‘Their red hearts,’ the report concluded, ‘look to the party.’ Party branches have also been used to coerce overseas Chinese scholars. An investigation by Foreign Policy found that some visiting students from Chinese universities who formed party branches abroad were asked to report on any subversive opinions held by their classmates. It’s probable that similar kinds of pressure are exerted on overseas PLA researchers.

    Online communication forms an important part of PLA efforts to maintain discipline among overseas personnel and is complemented by in-person contact. One report stated that students from NUDT’s College of Optoelectric Science and Engineering ‘regularly chat with College leaders by video call and exchange emails with NUDT academic supervisors and student cadres to discuss their thoughts, exchange ideas on academic matters, and clarify points of interest’. Regulations on the political education of overseas students by the same NUDT college include provisions for ‘overseas inspection’ and for students to return to China in the middle of their study for ‘remedial education’.

    One NUDT professor used a trip to an overseas conference as an opportunity to meet eight NUDT scientists studying in the region to ‘pass on the greetings and requests of party organizations’. The regulations also include provisions for ‘joint education and interaction with families’, which may imply that pressure on the family members of overseas PLA scientists is used to maintain discipline. The close watch that the PLA keeps on its overseas scientists helps ensure that all those sent abroad return to the Chinese military. NUDT, for example, requires that those applying to study abroad show their intent to return to ‘serve the construction of the nation, national defence and the military’.54 The PLA Daily claimed in 2013 that all the students whom NUDT had sent abroad in recent years returned on time to ‘become key forces in their work units’.


    Institutes that don’t exist: deception by PLA scientists

    An article from 2002 on the website of a Chinese overseas study agency offers insights into the use of cover. In response to a question asking whether having graduated from a military institution would affect one’s ability to get an overseas visa, the company responded: Many military colleges and military units externally have common names (民间称呼) that don’t reveal their military characteristics. NUDT, for example, is externally known as Changsha Institute of Technology. This is the best way [to avoid having your visa application rejected]. The Changsha Institute of Technology was a PLA institution subsumed by NUDT in 1975. While the quote above doesn’t come from an official source, it at least indicates how these unsophisticated but nonetheless effective covers are understood as tools for hiding one’s military background

    Besides using non-existent institutions with innocuous-sounding names as cover, PLA members also claim to be from real civilian institutions in the same regions as their military units. New Zealand MP Yang Jian, for example, who taught intelligence officers at the PLA Foreign Languages Institute in Luoyang, claimed in his New Zealand residency application to have worked at Luoyang University. Before moving to New Zealand in 1999, Yang received an Australian Government aid scholarship to study at the Australian National University, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in international relations. During that period, he interned at the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and headed the Canberra Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which retains intimate ties to the Chinese Embassy to this day.

    Yang told media, ‘the system asked me to use the partner university,’ referring to Luoyang University. A number of PLA scientists using cover to travel abroad have created LinkedIn profiles using their cover institutions, which may have been used to shore up their claimed affiliations while overseas.61 The use of cover appears to be managed differently by each institution, some of which use cover far more often than others. The cover is also not used consistently within each institution. As described below, PLA Information Engineering University (PLAIEU) researchers have both used cover and openly stated their affiliation at the same conferences. It’s unclear whether this indicates that the use of cover is up to the discretion of each researcher or perhaps that it relates to the sensitivity of a researcher’s work or position in the PLA

    NUDT appears to no longer use the ‘Changsha Institute of Technology’ as cover, but it engages in a different kind of deception. A document published by NUDT for students hoping to study abroad advises them that, when providing documentation in their applications to foreign institutions, ‘military and political courses can be excluded’ from their academic records.63 This appears designed to mislead overseas authorities, universities and researchers by downplaying the extent to which NUDT is a military institution and to which these students are military scientists

    The Xi’an Research Institute of High Technology

    Scientists from the PLA Rocket Force Engineering University (RFEU, 火箭军工程大学) , a key research base for the PLA Rocket Force, claim to be from the ‘Xi’an Research Institute of High Technology’ (西安 高技术研究所), which appears to only exist on paper. At least five RFEU scientists claiming to be from the Xi’an Research Institute have traveled overseas as visiting scholars, including one of the PLA’s leading missile experts, Major General Hu Changhua (胡昌 华), and three of his close associates at RFEU. General Hu, who heads RFEU’s Missile Testing and Control Simulation Experimental Teaching Centre, visited the University of Duisburg–Essen in Germany for four months in 2008. It’s unclear what he worked on in Germany, as he didn’t publish any papers while there, but his work for the PLA focuses on flight control systems and fault diagnosis for missiles. Two RFEU scientists who frequently publish with Hu, Zhou Zhijie (周志杰) and Wang Zhaoqiang (王兆强), were visiting scholars at universities in England; they claim in their English publications to be from the Xi’an Research Institute.

    Hu Xiaoxiang:

     case study Identifying the Xi’an Research Institute of High Technology as a cover institute helps shed light on the January 2015 expulsion from Norway of a Chinese scientist and his supervisor, a dual citizen of Germany and Iran. The expulsion came after Norwegian authorities determined that the work of the Chinese scientist, later named in court as Hu Xiaoxiang (扈晓翔), could be used to develop hypersonic cruise missiles; Hu wrote five papers with his supervisor at the University of Agder, all of which listed the Xi’an Research Institute as his affiliation. The papers focused on air-breathing hypersonic vehicles, which travel at over five times the speed of sound and ‘can carry more payload than ordinary flight vehicles’.

    Hu’s work was supported by a Norwegian Government grant for offshore wind energy research. Besides his affiliation with the Xi’an Research Institute, there’s a large body of evidence tying Hu to RFEU. The website of RFEU’s missile research centre states that Hu Xiaoxiang won an award in 2014 for his Ph.D. thesis on hypersonic aircraft, supervised by General Hu Changhua. The website also says that in 2014 he received 250,000 renminbi (A$50,000) from the Chinese Government for a three-year research project on hypersonic aircraft.  In 2016, he was described as a lecturer at the centre, which received 14 awards for missile research between 2010 and 2014. In some publications, Hu also listed the Harbin Institute of Technology, a civilian university heavily engaged in military research, as a second affiliation

    Relations between China and Norway were put on ice when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010, and the Chinese Government was quick to attack Norway for Hu’s expulsion. Only in December 2016 did the two countries ‘normalise’ diplomatic relations. Public statements by Norwegian authorities didn’t explain the Chinese scientist’s military affiliation or mention the Xi’an Research Institute, as the information was likely classified.

    A few months later, in September 2015, a court overturned the expulsions. Hu’s lawyer stated after the trial that ‘there is no evidence in the case that my client is part of research collaboration on missiles and weapons with China.’ The University of Agder lauded the decision as a win for academic freedom. The Norwegian Government later successfully appealed the overturning of Hu’s supervisor’s expulsion. However, it’s unclear whether any appeal was made in Hu’s own case, which hasn’t been made publicly available. Neither the Xi’an Research Institute, Hu Changhua nor RFEU was mentioned in the judge’s ruling on the German-Iranian supervisor’s case or any coverage of the expulsions.

    The Zhengzhou Institute of Surveying and Mapping

    Among the 40 Chinese military scientists listed as presenting papers at the 9th International Symposium on Mobile Mapping Technology, nine claimed to be from an institution with no apparent military affiliation.80 Most of the other 30 military scientists at the conference, hosted by UNSW in December 2015, were openly from NUDT and a research institute of China North Industries Group Corporation (also known as Norinco Group), China’s largest arms manufacturer; the rest came mainly from the PLA Information Engineering University.

    The nine claimed to be from the Zhengzhou Institute of Surveying and Mapping. This institute, which was officially known as the PLA Institute of Surveying and Mapping, no longer exists, having been subsumed in 1999 by PLAIEU—itself a major player in cyber operations and a key training ground for signals intelligence officers.81 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 use of the Zhengzhou Institute of Surveying and Mapping as the cover doesn’t stop at international conferences. Numerous examples of visiting scholars claiming to be from there have been uncovered for this report. They include Zhu Xinhui (朱新慧), a lecturer at PLAIEU specializing in navigation technology, who visited UNSW from 2015 to 2016. In numerous journal articles and in the program of the mobile mapping conference mentioned above, however, she is described as being from the Zhengzhou Institute of Surveying and Mapping. Guo Jianfeng (郭建锋), an associate professor at PLAIEU, visited Curtin University for a year in 2014. A specialist on navigation system data processing, Guo was described on the website of Curtin University’s Global Navigation Satellite Systems Research Centre as being on ‘sabbatical leave from the Department of Geodesy of the Institute of Surveying and Mapping, Zhengzhou, China

    The Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute

    Another cover institute, the Zhengzhou Information Science and Technology Institute (ZISTI), which appears to exist only on paper, has also been widely used by PLAIEU scientists to publish research and travel overseas. More than 1,300 pieces of peer-reviewed literature have been authored by individuals claiming to be from ZISTI.86 One paper in a Chinese-language journal by a PLAIEU researcher, which includes an English version of the abstract and author information, clearly shows that ZISTI is a cover institute. The paper’s Chinese text describes the first author as affiliated with PLAIEU, but the English version describes the same author as affiliated with ZISTI. Nearly all of the authors sampled who claimed an affiliation with ZISTI could be shown to be working at PLAIEU.


    Scientists claiming to be from ZISTI have attended international conferences both inside and outside China. For example, seven researchers affiliated with ZISTI are listed in the program of a conference on signal processing at the Gold Coast in Australia in 2014. Experts from American, Australian and Korean defence research agencies were also in attendance. As with the Zhengzhou Institute of Surveying and Mapping, ZISTI has been used as cover for PLA scientists travelling overseas as visiting scholars. For example, Zhu Yijun (朱义君) is an associate professor at PLAIEU specialising in signals engineering.89 Claiming to be from ZISTI, in 2011 he visited Canada’s McMaster University, where he worked on wireless communications technology with wide-ranging military applications. PLAIEU scientists claiming to be from ZISTI have also travelled to the US as visiting scholars and for conferences.

    Espionage and intellectual property theft

    In addition to their overt activities, PLA researchers, especially those who haven’t been forthcoming about their military affiliations, may engage in espionage or steal intellectual property while overseas. The PLA engages in such high levels of espionage that in 2014 the US Government took the unusual step of publicly indicting five Chinese military hackers. Military scientists abroad who regularly communicate with superiors in China, receive visits by superiors while overseas and return home in the middle of their time abroad for ‘remedial education’, as described in the examples outlined above, offer safe and convenient channels for Chinese intelligence agencies to access sensitive information from overseas. Amateur collectors with STEM expertise have been implicated in a high proportion of intellectual property theft and espionage cases involving China. Scientists and engineers involved in military research projects, while they might not have received formal training as spies, are uniquely qualified to identify and exfiltrate valuable information to overcome specific hurdles in the development of new technologies.

    Should universities collaborate with the PLA?

    Assessing the costs and benefits of research collaboration with the PLA shows that it comes with significant security risks while offering unclear benefits. It isn’t in the national interest of most of the countries examined in this report to help build the capabilities of a rival military. Other forms of cooperation with the Chinese military, such as joint exercises and exchanges that build understanding and communication, are largely beneficial but distinct from the kinds of research collaboration addressed in this report. There are many risks and costs associated with current approaches to training and collaborating with PLA scientists:


    • Training PLA scientists improve the scientific talent and knowledge of a military treated by many as a strategic competitor.
    • PLA scientists often engage in deception in their interactions with foreign institutions and their staff, making it difficult for those collaborating with them to take appropriate security precautions. 
    • PLA scientists could gather intelligence and steal technology while they’re overseas, especially if they’re hiding their military affiliations. 
    • Failures to address concerns about PLA collaboration and to develop policies differentiating it from wider engagement with China risk tarring all research ties with China with the same brush. 
    • Research collaboration with the PLA contributes to technology that may be used against Australia and its partners in a conflict or for intelligence collection. 
    • Universities with ties to the PLA risk eroding trust between themselves and funders of research, such as defence research agencies, scientific agencies, and industry. 
    • Universities risk reputational damage by collaborating with a non-allied military. 
    • Public funding worth millions of dollars is being used for collaboration with a non-allied military, with little to no input from taxpayers.


    Current policy and legislation are inadequate Export controls are the primary mechanism by which countries seek to manage the supply of sensitive technology and goods to overseas entities. However, the ability of export control laws to effectively manage the risks posed by PLA research collaboration is limited. In Australia, few cases of research or cooperation contrary to our national interests are believed to have been prevented through the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012. The current review of the Act offers an opportunity to address some of these limitations. There are a few reasons for these difficulties. First, the intangible transfer of technology—the primary form of technology transfer taking place through the kinds of collaboration studied in this paper— is extremely difficult to control in practice because it doesn’t involve the export of physical goods.

    Second, the Act doesn’t regulate the supply of controlled technology, which includes instruction and training, to individuals in Australia even if they’re PLA members. Third, some of this collaboration covers emerging technologies, such as quantum physics, that are important but not included in the Defence and Strategic Goods List, as their applications aren’t yet fully known. Export control lists tend to be slow to incorporate emerging technologies, so regulatory power can come well after issues become apparent. Fourth, the Act doesn’t regulate the supply of controlled technology by Australians when they’re outside of Australia, such as training given to PLA members by Australian academics visiting China.

    Recommendations

     The PLA’s collaboration with foreign universities is growing and the expansion of international ties remains one of NUDT’s priorities. The developments outlined in this report warrant more attention and different approaches from those currently employed by most governments and universities. Responses to PLA collaboration need to be informed by clear government policies and move beyond export controls, using the full range of tools available to governments and universities. The Australian Government, for example, can do more to work in partnership with our research sector to advance scientific progress while protecting national security and ensuring that relevant research doesn’t advance the Chinese military’s capabilities. Based on the findings of this report, it is recommended that governments pursue the following measures: Deepen discussions within government on PLA collaboration to determine how it relates to the national interest


    • Determine what kinds of collaboration with the PLA should be further controlled or even prohibited and establish clear policy on engagement with PLA research organisations and personnel. 
    • Foster international discussions on PLA collaboration to develop multilateral responses. 
    • Develop interagency responses to PLA collaboration to ensure better integration of efforts by defence and export control agencies, intelligence agencies and immigration agencies. 
    • Share information about cases and trends in PLA collaboration, particularly cases of deception by PLA scientists, with partners across the globe.

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