PLA sends ‘student spies’ to gather Western technology
PLA trawling of military technology disguised as academic collaboration, technological theft and hacking are becoming a toxic brew with no antidote
A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released on Wednesday alleges that China is sending military scientists to Western universities to engage in advanced studies to improve the People’s Liberation Army military capabilities.
The report, “Picking Flowers, Making Honey,” notes that international cooperation and an open spirit of collaboration, including with Chinese scientists, has led to some of the great scientific achievements of recent times.
But the report also notes that the PLA “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 report’s title comes from a PLA expression Yìguó cǎihuā, zhōnghuá niàngmì, which translates as: “Picking flowers abroad to make honey in China.”
“It’s not clear that Western universities and governments are fully aware of this phenomenon,” the report said, adding: “Current policies by governments and universities have not fully addressed issues like the transfer of knowledge and technology through collaboration with the PLA.”
A key player is the PLA National University of Defense Technology, which sends researchers abroad, sometimes disguising “their military affiliations, claiming to be from non-existent academic institutions.”
Another source is China’s Army Engineering University, which was formed in 2017 by the merger of the PLA University of Science and Technology and a number of other PLA academic institutions.
In some cases, the report revealed, it would appear that Chinese PhD candidates or post-graduate researchers, working in strategic fields such as quantum physics, signal processing, cryptography, navigation technology and autonomous vehicles, are even the recipients of taxpayer funding in their host countries.
But it has to be noted that this is very much a two-way street, with foreign universities benefitting greatly from Chinese, and in some cases PLA, research grants.
“One professor at the University of New South Wales, for instance, worked with PLA scientists using Australian Research Council grants worth $2.3 million,” the report claimed.
Chinese state media promptly reacted to the report’s release, arguing:
“China’s rise has brought some Australian political, academia and media elites a sense of crisis and has made them lose their reason … If Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan – regions and countries that share a similar culture with the Chinese mainland – can achieve technological progress, why can’t the Chinese mainland make it without stealing?”
This argument is not entirely without merit, but it neglects to mention that none of the countries it mentions as sharing “a similar culture with the Chinese mainland” have all to some degree or another politically matured and democratized. They also all have varying degrees of commitment to maintaining the current status quo in the region.
But, also in fairness, it needs to be added that the Australian report’s principal concern is with Chinese infiltration of universities of what are known as “five eyes nations,” an intelligence alliance comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. All countries are signatories of the UKUSA Agreement, involving shared signals intelligence.
In the wake of NSA-leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations about the agreement’s spying operations, it has become public knowledge that it is undoubtedly the biggest and most sophisticated espionage operation in history.
Meanwhile, at least two of the countries that China claims as culturally similar – Singapore and South Korea – are reportedly implicated in Five Eyes’ sharing of spying information.
This a roundabout way of saying that China is compelled to expropriate advanced foreign technology covertly – either through internet espionage or through the handover of research results disguised as academic cooperation. The reason is that China’s territorial ambitions are at odds with the interests of its regional neighbors, as well as with those of the Western liberal order, such as it is.
Meanwhile, as Beijing continues to trumpet its “Made in China 2025” goal, the South China Morning Post reported this week that, in a Politburo “group study” session, President Xi Jinping stated that the nation must continue to emphasize AI to secure the country’s coming technological and industrial revolution.
Research into AI in China has until now been the preserve of mostly private internet giants such as Tencent and Alibaba, making this one of the rare occasions that the Chinese leader has officially endorsed the technology.
It is arguably a further sign that the Cold-War technology-trade standoff between China and the US and its allies will undoubtedly continue – if not increase in intensity.
On Wednesday the Asia Times documented allegations of systematic re-routing of international internet, clearly with “malicious intent,” while Reuters reported that the US has indicted 10 “hackers and company insiders” for high-level industrial and technological espionage.
The US indictment unsealed on Tuesday charged the 10 with breaking into private companies’ computing systems and stealing information vital to turbofans used in commercial jets.
According to the indictment, from January 2010 to May of 2015 agents of a provincial foreign intelligence arm of China’s Ministry of State Security, along with company insiders, had “conspired to steal sensitive commercial technological, aviation, and aerospace data by hacking into computers in the United States and abroad.”
As Marco Rubio, Republican Senator for Florida, said in a Tweet earlier this year:
“China is the broadest & most dangerous & meaningful espionage challenge America faces. From medical research to technology, from military to academia, virtually every part of American life is a target of Chinese government spy efforts.”
Regardless of his political affiliations, Rubio is simply stating a position that is now commonplace in the US vocabulary of geopolitical strategy. China is doubling down on its ambitions.
The question now is only whether the possible outcomes can be limited to finger-pointing, increased security legislation, and indictments for theft and hacking.