Australia should look to US bill to stop the transfer of sensitive technology to the Chinese military
16 May 2019|

A bill introduced to the United States Congress is an important step towards limiting the transfer of sensitive technology to China’s People’s Liberation Army. The PLA Visa Security Act would ban the issuing of student and visiting scholar visas to individuals affiliated with the Chinese military. This comes after a report ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre published last year, Picking flowers, making honey, found that the PLA has sent more than 2,500 officers and cadres to study science and engineering abroad, some of whom actively hid their military ties.

The issues raised here are global—large numbers of PLA scientists have been sent to Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom—so the bill recommends that all Five Eyes countries pursue similar measures to address the problems posed by PLA scientists working and training in the West.

The growing recognition of the Chinese Communist Party’s global ambitions has had major implications for the use of technologies like 5G—just look at the recent controversies over Huawei in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America. While they scrutinise Chinese companies and their products, many countries are also exploring better ways to prevent sensitive technologies from being exported to and used by China. In November, the US government announced a review of export controls for emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, hypersonics and advanced materials. Australia also conducted an independent review of defence trade controls that was released in February.

While recent discussions on export controls have focused on emerging technologies, the new US bill makes a valuable contribution by emphasising the end user of a technology, emerging or not. Focusing on the intentions of end users as well as the sensitivity of technologies is a more comprehensive way of determining the risks associated with an export. If the Chinese military is interested in a technology, you can be pretty confident that it wants to use it for military applications. A more nuanced framework helps build better risk management for engagement with China—showing that countries don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach to collaborating with Chinese researchers.

In the case of the PLA’s overseas research collaboration, the intention is clearly to improve its ability to develop and access cutting-edge technologies with military value, in line with the CCP’s policy of military–civil fusion. Both Australian and US export-control legislation include instruction or training necessary to develop, produce or use a good in their definitions of ‘technology’. These elements, and not just the physical product, must be taken into account when individuals and organisations engage with the Chinese military.

Australia’s export-control regime has gaping holes. At the moment, it’s legal to train Chinese military officers in technologies that we couldn’t export to them, as long as the training happens on Australian soil. US legislation, on the other hand, regulates technology transfer to foreign nationals regardless of their location. While the US and Japan publish lists of end users that are subject to greater export restrictions—mostly entities like Iranian nuclear facilities and the PLA National University of Defense Technology that are involved in developing weapons of mass destruction and missiles—Australia does not. It’s therefore little surprise that over a hundred scientists from the National University of Defense Technology have trained in Australia, including some involved in projects linked to China’s nuclear weapons program.

However, there are a few reasons why not many countries publish end user lists as the US and Japan do. First, as relations with China are a sensitive issue for many countries, there’s concern that similar moves will draw Beijing’s ire. China often denounces US decisions to add Chinese organisations to its list. Second, additional resources would be required for the relevant parts of the bureaucracy to build, maintain and ensure compliance with such a list, which can require painstaking research into links between organisations and weapons research. Third, discriminating against specific entities encourages them to use cover institutions and proxies. Export-control legislation and measures like the PLA Visa Security Act would make doing so illegal, creating greater disincentives and room for law enforcement to act.

It can be difficult to know where to draw the line when discriminating against end users. Chinese government policy is entangling civilian and military activities, making it harder to determine whether collaboration with a Chinese civilian university, for example, could be used to directly benefit the PLA. The new bill will likely attract debate for this reason—it applies not just to scientists in the Chinese military but also to individuals who are or have been affiliated with the PLA and PLA-funded institutions, which could have jarring effects on the scientific community.

Regardless of precisely where the line should be drawn, the unsupervised and direct transfer of technology with military applications to the PLA clearly crosses it. This bill offers an important precedent to countries like Australia that should be concerned by collaboration on technologies that can be used to expand the Chinese Communist Party’s military power and oppressive social control in regions like Xinjiang.

For Australia, a clear policy statement that it is not in Australia’s interest to increase the warfighting capability of the Chinese military, and the militaries of any other potential adversaries, would be common sense. This guiding principle would provide a strong basis for future decision-making.