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Inadvertently Arming China?: The Chinese military complex and its potential exploitation of scientific research at UK universities

Radomir Tylecote and Robert Clark, February 2021

Revised Edition; Updated 24.02.2021

 

There is a ‘pervasive presence of Chinese military-linked conglomerates and universities in the sponsorship of high-technology research centres in many leading UK universities and in their research relationships’, a think-tank report has found.

In many cases, these UK universities are unintentionally generating research that is sponsored by and may be of use to China’s military conglomerates, including those with activities in the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as well as hypersonic missiles, in which China is involved in a new arms race and seeks ‘massively destabilising’ weaponry.

Much of this research is entirely based at UK universities, while other research outputs include cooperation with researchers in China, often at the military-linked universities or companies sponsoring the UK research centre. Many of the research projects will have a civilian use, and UK-based researchers will be unaware of a possible dual use that might lead to a contribution to China’s military industries.

The report by Radomir Tylecote and Robert Clark finds that over half of the 24 Russell Group universities and many other UK academic bodies have or have had productive research relationships with Chinese military-linked manufacturers and universities. Much of the research at the university centres and laboratories is also being sponsored by the UK taxpayer through research councils, Innovate UK, and the Royal Society.

The authors argue that this trend should be seen in the context of China’s stated aim to equal the US military by 2027; and to use advanced military technology to leapfrog the US by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This report analyses the relationships that up to 15 UK universities have established with 22 Chinese military-linked universities as well as weapons suppliers or other military-linked companies. Many of these Chinese universities are deemed ‘Very High Risk’ by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

The authors find that “The methods by which the UK monitors and controls Chinese involvement in UK university research are, we suggest, inadequate.” The report spells out “a picture of strategic incoherence.”

“China is demonstrating rapid technological-military development and growing force-projection capabilities. To risk financing and enabling these developments suggests a lack of strategic coordination.

“This points to the need for a strategic reassessment for new rules for scientific research with PRC universities and companies, some of which should be applied directly to the UK’s research councils and universities, while some may require legislation.

“Other rules are needed for scientific research in wider potentially sensitive scientific fields generally and in universities in particular.”

The report recommends the UK government should list all those Chinese military-linked companies and institutions that it wants to bar from sponsoring science research in UK universities and from research cooperation in general.

The authors also suggest the UK set up a new government organisation similar to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), whose role would include monitoring and assessment of university sponsorship.

Those measures should form part of an urgent reassessment of the security implications of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ policies towards China and the strategic assumptions that underpinned them.

 

NB: None of the academics, researchers, or other staff whose research at UK universities or centres is discussed in this report are accused of knowingly assisting the development of the Chinese military, of knowingly transferring information to that end, or of committing any breach of their university regulations. Nor are they accused of any other wrongdoing, or breach of national security, or any criminal offence. In some cases, research may be used solely for non-military ends; the purpose of the examples mentioned in this report is not necessarily to demonstrate that they risk being used for military purposes, but in some cases that the research may simply help improve the business or academic position of a PRC military-linked conglomerate or institution; where research may be put to use by the military of the PRC or organisations which are linked to it, we assume that researchers in the UK will have carried out this research without intending this to happen. Furthermore, none of the UK universities, institutes or funding bodies mentioned in this report are accused of knowingly contributing to the development of China’s military or its military industries, as we believe that these universities have developed the sponsorship and research relationships we describe in good faith and in the belief that their scientific outputs will have purely civil ends.   

The purpose of this report is simply to draw attention to the risk that UK research may be exploited by the Chinese military in a way the researchers could never have envisaged. It is our belief that shedding light on this risk is unquestionably a matter of pressing and vital public interest. We have initially published this in online form only to provide more opportunity for possible corrections.

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