China, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, technology, national security, technology transfer, higher education, National Institutes of Health, universities, National Science Foundation, Hoover Institution, science, John Pomfret, Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
The word “blockbuster” has been so overused and misused by the national media during the Trump era that it’s impact has been watered down. Yet a new report by the California-based Hoover Institution definitely deserves that description – for it details the shocking and dangerous extent to which the U.S. government’s science and technology research arms, along with many of America’s top universities, have in recent years been merrily working, and no doubt sharing crucial defense-related technology, with individuals tightly connected with China’s military.
You can read an excellent summary of the report here by John Pomfret, a former longtime Washington Post China correspondent who’s turned into a full-time scholar of U.S. relations with the People’s Republic. But there are six points that I think deserve special attention.
First,even anyone who didn’t know that the Chinese institutions from which the Chinese researchers have come are called by China’s regime itself “Seven Sons of National Defense,” two of the names alone should be kind of a giveaway: Beiing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Unless anyone at any of the American universities involved doesn’t know that any activity in China with an aerospace component isn’t largely military in nature?
Second, the research projects themselves being conducted by teams of scientists from these U.S. and Chinese institutions haven’t been given names with obvious military implications. But any American authorities with a tech background should be aware of this dimension. Take “Effect of gallium addition on the microstructure and micromechanical properties of constituents in Nb-Si based alloys.” Gallium is a metal used mainly in micro-electronics manufacturing. Among its properties: It can “produce laser light directly from electricity….” Nothing military to see there! Ditto for the role played by gallium arsenide its role in making semiconductors for pressure sensors for touch switches.
“Nb” is niobium, another metal, is useful for making “superalloys for heat resistant equipment” – and therefore is handy for producing items like jet engines. And of course “Si”, or silicon, is a core building block of semiconductors themselves.
Nor is that work the only research that should have raised eyebrows. In 2018, an entity called the China-US International Cooperation Project (about which a Google search turned up squadoosh) and the Harbin Institute of Technology jointly funded a Master’s thesis on the “Modeling and Analysis of Energy Characteristics and Equivalent Carbon Emissions of CNC Centerless Grinding Machine.”
These types of machine tools are critical for defense manufacturing – including in aerospace – because they can make sure that metal surfaces of parts and components of complex manufactured devices have smooth enough surfaces to operate friction-free – an especially important goal to achieve when producing weapons that need to be highly reliable even in the most challenging situations. Indeed, when these grinders get advanced enough, their overseas sale is regulated for national security reasons by the U.S. government. Why on earth would that same government be helping the Chinese find out anything new about them?
Possibly most obvious – and therefore possibly most maddening – of all: Why did a researcher at the University of Virginia co-author with three colleagues affiliated with Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics a 2018 article titled “Research Progress of Adaptive Control for Hyper-Sonic Vehicle in Near Space”? Did he and the University of Virginia think we’ve arrived already at the United Federation of Planets phase of human history?
Third, as indicated above, the list of American universities involved in these potentially dangerous activities is as long as the inividual schools are highly regarded. It includes Virginia, MIT, Stanford, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas, the University of North Carolina, Purdue University, Arizona State University, the University of Minnesota, George Washington University, the University of California-Irvine, and Georgia Tech.
Fourth, the list of U.S. government agencies involved is impressive, too. It includes the National Institutes of Health, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the National Science Foundation.
Fifth, U.S. universities aren’t close to getting a handle on making sure that the research they sponsor in various ways doesn’t strengthen the Chinese military – and therefore undermine U.S. national security. As the Hoover authors point out:
“Only now is the US research community awakening to the intensity and scope of [the China challenge] and its military or dual-use dimensions. However, in the absence of external regulatory or policy mandates, US research institutions have been slow to adapt their due diligence and risk management frameworks. Weak institutional reporting mechanisms and compliance cultures have permitted some collaborations to go unknown, unreported, or underreported. Even among vetted collaborations, conflicts of commitment, unreported or misreported elements, or other activities that undermine the integrity of US scientific research and exceed the scope of collaboration agreements occur. In short, prevailing due diligence and risk management practices for screening and tracking potential collaborations with PRC entities fall far short of what circumstances require.”
Sixth, as must be obvious, the U.S. government isn’t doing much better. Specifically, according to the Hoover study, official U.S. responses (as with those of universities) focus too tightly on whether current laws and regulations aimed dealing with these threats are being violated, without considering whether these restrictions are still adequate. Moreover, Washington seems to view its processes of granting visas as the predominant way to fend off the Chinese threat. As noted by the Hoover authors, however, “collaborations with US partners may move online or to sites outside of the United States.”
So although the Trump administration is far more keenly aware of this problem than its predecessors, clearly is still has a very long way to go.
The Hoover authors are very careful to say that they’re not urging a complete ban on U.S. scientific and technological cooperation with China, and fully acknowledge that the nation has enjoyed major benefits from its academic and research-related openness. Indeed, they lay out a strategy for the research community to avoid handing China many of the keys to America’s scientific and technological kingdoms – in hopes that a heavier government hand can be avoided. Unfortunately, they make such a strong case that both the public and private research communities have been so far behind the eight ball in this respect, that it’s hard to see how anything short of sweeping official measures can deal adequately with the kind of systemic threat posed by China.