Throughout the universities studied, there were more than 160 defence-focused laboratories “many of which disguise their military ties but are nonetheless funded and supervised by the People’s Liberation Army”.
The growing ties are part of the Chinese government’s “military-civil fusion”, a policy of leveraging the civilian economy to boost military development. These activities have accelerated over the last decade.
The universities have been included in a new “China Defence Universities Tracker” database developed by the think tank, based on analysis of the institutions’ military and intelligence backgrounds. The resource is intended to help Australian decision makers do due diligence on potential research partners.
In the database, 92 research institutions have been categorised as “very high risk”. Another 23 – all universities – were deemed “high risk”, and 44 were medium or low risk.
“The wedding of the military and the civilian in China’s universities has important consequences for policymakers and universities engaged with partners in China,” report author Alex Joske said, highlighting the growing international presence of Chinese entities and the significant resources they were putting into research and development.
“Universities and governments remain unable to effectively manage risks that come with growing collaboration with PRC entities,” Mr Joske’s report found. “There’s little accessible information on the military and security links of PRC universities. This knowledge gap limits the effectiveness of risk-management efforts.”
The report recommended the Australian government “increase and refine the allocation of government research funding”. It also called for stricter technology export controls, enforcement of laws preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, and visa screening.
It also urges universities to bolster scrutiny of existing and new collaborations, including more specialised background checks and clauses in contracts allowing termination on ethical and security grounds.
Media reports and research have highlighted a number of Australian university partnerships which have raised concerns about implications for human rights, national security and academic freedoms. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age recently revealed Monash University’s deal with a Chinese state-owned aerospace company linked to a global espionage campaign.
Voluntary interference guidelines jointly developed by government and universities have introduced greater responsibilities to protect students and staff from harm, probe suspicious research partners and prevent undue influence on academic activities.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.