Chinese People's Liberation Army honor guards.

Some Chinese universities have agreements with the People’s Liberation Army (pictured).Credit: Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Forty-three Chinese universities should be considered ‘very high’ or ‘high’ risk collaborators because of their involvement in research for military and defence purposes, according to an Australian think tank. The risk assessment comes just weeks after the Australian government released guidelines to help universities reduce the threat of foreign entities leveraging research activities on campus against Australia’s interests.

A report published on 25 November by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra details how China is using its universities to boost its military prowess. The institute also launched a database that classifies the level of risk — from very high to low — posed by research partnerships with some 160 Chinese universities, security institutions and defence industry groups.

Chinese institutions were included based on their links to defence agencies and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), says Alex Joske, the Canberra-based author of the report, who also worked on the database. Some of those connections include security credentials for participating in classified defence or weapons-technology projects; military or defence agreements with the PLA or other defence industry agencies; records of the institution’s involvement in surveillance research; and whether graduates subsequently join security or intelligence agencies.

Existing partnerships between many of the Chinese institutions and foreign universities are also listed in the database, which relied mainly on publicly available sources such as university or government-agency websites, according to the report.

The database, which was partly funded by the US Department of State, is important because it provides specific intelligence about and evidence for the risk posed by collaborations, says Frank Pieke, chief executive of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a China–Europe think tank in Berlin. This includes details about the Chinese universities that have dedicated defence laboratories, which fund military research.

Due diligence

Pieke says that awareness of the potential risks of collaborating with some Chinese universities is rising globally, but that some universities have not heeded advice to restrict collaborations on the basis of national security. Australian institutes have made more progress in addressing these risks than have countries such as the United States or Germany, says Pieke.

Last month, an Australian government-led task force released guidelines for universities considering collaborations with international partners, to reduce the risk of foreign interference. The guidelines, which include performing due diligence on potential collaborators, were created amid growing concern from some politicians and academics over projects between Chinese universities and Australian researchers that have potential military or surveillance uses.

Joske says the database, which will be updated over time, should allow universities to improve their due diligence when assessing potential research partners.

The Chinese government has not yet commented directly on the ASPI analysis, but an editorial in the state-owned China Daily newspaper called the report's claims “sheer nonsense”. However, the article states that the report calls for Australian universities to be barred from partnering with the Chinese institutions in the report, which it does not.

China has repeatedly denied interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. Officials have instead emphasized that relations between China and Australian universities have facilitated student exchange, and contributed to research.

Existing partnerships

The ASPI report and database also detail some of the direct links between Chinese state-owned defence companies and research institutions around the world. ASPI found that these companies have joint labs with, or have made large investments in, six UK universities, one university each in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, as well as three Australian universities.

ASPI’s work helps to untangle the relationship webs between Chinese research institutions and the country’s military and security agencies, says Elena Collinson, who researches Australia–China relations at the University of Technology Sydney. These might otherwise be difficult to consolidate because information is spread across many sources and often in a language other than English, she says.

But Collinson also says the value of the database as a practical tool is difficult to assess, because it doesn't include a detailed description of how each risk level was calculated.

Whether academics use the database remains to be seen, says Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at SOAS, University of London. The idea that researchers would check a long list of potentially problematic collaborators before starting a project is unrealistic, he says. Governments that want their universities to avoid collaborations with scholars in specific fields or institutes in certain countries should provide academics with a short, concise list of those groups, he says.