China-Australia research under a political microscope

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Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at Parliament House in Canberra during the latter's visit in March 2017. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

Australia’s research collaboration with China is either creating potential life-improving breakthroughs, or developing military technology with the capacity to destroy human life on an industrial scale.

The debate surrounding the joint research efforts has become increasingly politicalized with allegations that many ventures could secretly boost China’s military abilities at the expense of Australia’s and its regional allies’ strategic positions.

Australia-China research is building both creative and destructive capacities, sometimes at the same universities at the same time, representing yet another dilemma in Australia’s relationship with its top trade partner.

As with Canberra’s policy confusion over rising Chinese influence in the South China Sea and the wider Pacific region, Australia has so far tried to gloss over the contradictions in its research relationship with China.

Australia’s state governments, corporations, universities and even departments within those institutions of higher learning are all pursuing their own separate research relationships with Chinese collaborators.

But the lack of coordination is creating a headache for the federal government in Canberra, which continues to take a hard-line approach to China on defense and security issues.

Who are you backing? Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sits with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang as they watch an AFL game. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) sits with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) at a football match. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

The dichotomy could perhaps have continued uninterrupted were it not for claims made late last year by two Australian academics, Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske, about China’s alleged military penetration of various joint research efforts.

The academics detailed several research projects with participants with known links to the People’s Liberation Army, and claimed that Australia was inadvertently helping to realize China’s “strong army dream” to the detriment of Australia’s own defense posture.

For example, doctoral students in supercomputing at the University of New South Wales were allegedly “all PLA personnel”, while Xue Jingling, UNSW’s professor of computing science and engineering had “extensive links” with the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT).

Another UNSW project known as the Torch Innovation program is developing technology which could be used in unmanned military vehicles, while the University of Adelaide is creating a machine learning institute with a Chinese partner, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which could allegedly siphon off intellectual property for Chinese military use.

Then there is the A$20 million (US$15.7 million) partnership between the University of Technology Sydney and China Electronics Group Corporation, a state-owned company which develops bombs and guided missiles.

China's Vice President Xi Jinping makes a speech before he opened Australia's first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute, at the RMIT University in Melbourne on June 20, 2010.  The Confucius Institute will promote the study of Chinese culture and language with a focus on Chinese Medicine - one of the world's oldest and longest standing healthcare systems, tracing back more than 2,500 years.  Xi is on a five-day visit to Australia.  AFP PHOTO/William WEST / AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM WEST

Then Chinese vice president Xi Jinping opened Australia’s first Chinese Medicine Confucius Institute at the RMIT University in Melbourne on June 20, 2010. Photo: AFP/William West

These examples, Hamilton and Joske say, are just the “tip of the iceberg” with at least 14 NUDT graduates passing through the Australian National University in post graduate research positions in recent years.

Hamilton, the author of a soon-to-be-published book on Chinese influence in Australia titled “Silent Invasion”, claims there are hundreds of such projects.

“NUDT has collaborated with Australian researchers on hundreds of papers in high-tech fields like materials science, artificial intelligence and computer science,” say Hamilton and Joske.

Many of these projects, they say, have been funded by the Australian government through the Australian Research Council.

An alternate opinion comes from University of Sydney’s vice chancellor Michael Spence, whose institution has over 250 researchers working with Chinese counterparts. Spence has called the fear of Chinese research collaborations “Sinophobic blatherings” which have “no foundation.”

“Our experience with Chinese officials and the Chinese ministry of education has been excellent and they understand our commitment to academic freedom,” said Spence.

Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

Chinese students pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia. Photo: AFP

“It is important we leverage our relationship with Chinese researchers. When you are trying to cure cancer, for example, geopolitics doesn’t come into it.”

New South Wales’ (NSW) state government is on Spence’s side.

In December, NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a new technology partnership between the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and China’s Southern University of Science and Technology to develop technology for smart cities in areas such as robotics.

“Expanding our expertise in education is a great success story for NSW and this venture by UTS will further strengthen our global reputation as a leader in this field,” Berejiklian said.

“NSW earned over A$8 billion (US$6.3 billion) in export revenue from international education in 2016 – this means more jobs for NSW.”

Counterbalancing Hamilton’s examples of research with potential military applications, Australian and Chinese researchers are working on a multitude of projects with unequivocally civilian applications.

Against the grain: Australian farmers say they're not getting the benefits they were promised under a deal with China. Photo: Reuters.

Australian wheat in a harvest season. Photo: Reuters.

For instance, the Tasmanian government’s Natural Resource Management body is working with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences on environmental research.

Also in Tasmania, University of Tasmania scientist professor Steven Smith has been awarded a 2018 President’s International Fellowship by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to further his research on grain production in Beijing.

China is funding research at Sydney’s UTS in physics, at Monash University in Melbourne on the composition of alloys, at the University of Wollongong on biomedical circuits and at Canberra’s ANU on signals processing.

Solar technology now in use around the world would not be anywhere near as developed if not for the collaboration between UNSW’s Photovoltaics Center of Excellence and Chinese corporation Suntech.

In the private sector, Australian company Clean TeQ Holdings is working with China’s Chinalco Materials Application Research Institute and Chongquing University on the commercializing of scandium, a rare earth element.

Clearly, it’s a joint research juggernaut which cannot be easily stopped in its tracks. Still, it appears the federal government is set to intervene by further differentiating what constitutes so-called “dual use” research which China may apply for military purposes.

Australian infantrymen from the 5/7 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment display high-tech weapons and gadgets in a file photo: Photo: AFP

Australian infantrymen from the 5/7 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment display high-tech weapons and gadgets in a file photo: Photo: AFP

Defense Minister Marise Payne says that a review of the Defense Controls Act will commence in April to consider these issues. A government audit of the broad research landscape is also on the cards.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government recently announced a A$3.8 billion (US$3 billion) loan scheme designed to boost Australian defense sales and turn the nation into a “top ten” global arms exporter.

Western defense companies such as Germany’s Rheinmetall, US-based Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and the United Kingdom’s BAE Systems are well entrenched in Australia’s developing military industrial complex. They will likely incorporate Australian-developed intellectual property into equipment they aim to sell on global arms markets.

Turnbull’s government has assured Australians that these arms exports won’t fall into the wrong hands of rogue regimes. While not overtly announced, it’s safe to assume in the current political environment that that China is also on that no-sales list.

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