UK academia's links to Chinese defence firms 'harmful for national security'

Extensive links between British universities and Chinese defence companies, including missile manufacturers, could threaten UK national security interests, the author of a report on China’s research activity overseas has said.

The UK has been singled out as having unprecedented levels of collaboration with Chinese military companies in the analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which identifies collaborations with scientists from China’s hypersonic missile programme and on research topics ranging from smart materials to robotics.

Sixteen university labs around the world are identified as being run jointly by Chinese defence companies, or have major investments from them. Ten are based in the UK, with the University of Manchester and Imperial College London hosting six between them. The others are in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

“[Something] that really alarmed me was the level of collaboration with Chinese missile scientists,” said Alex Joske, the report’s author and an analyst at ASPI, referring to the UK collaborations. “I haven’t seen anything like Chinese missile manufacturers setting up these joint labs in other countries,” he added.

Earlier this month, a report by the foreign affairs select committee revealed “alarming evidence” of Chinese interference on UK campuses, adding that universities are not adequately responding to the growing risk of China and other “autocracies” influencing academic freedom in the UK.

The UK labs mentioned in the report include the Sino-British Joint Advanced Laboratory on Control System Technology at the University of Manchester and Imperial College London’s Advanced Structure Manufacturing Technology Laboratory. Both are partnerships with the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which develops space launch vehicles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Other labs highlighted in the report are based at the University of Strathclyde and the University of Nottingham. Research at the Strathclyde lab includes autonomous rendezvous systems for satellites, which could be used for docking, but also for anti-satellite missions.

Beyond their industrial collaborations with Chinese defence firms, dozens of British universities also work with Chinese military institutes, such as the PLA’s Army Engineering University and the National University of Defence Technology. The work ranges from hi-tech materials and design optimisation strategies to 5G networks and artificial intelligence programmes that can identify people in low-resolution surveillance footage, and control swarms of robotic vehicles on military patrols.

Bob Seely, a former Conservative MP and co-author of a critical report on Huawei for the Henry Jackson Society, said some universities appeared to have a “laissez-faire” attitude to the potential risks. “We are in danger of being extremely naive about this,” he said.

“We have to draw a line between what is beneficial for us and China and what is not so beneficial for us. I’m incredibly wary considering the amount of IP theft, espionage and cyberattacks that have come out of China. At the moment we haven’t got the balance right at all.”

Joske said that such research was often framed as “dual-use”, but that this concept was questionable when applied to collaborations with defence companies. “If you’re dealing with a company like a Chinese missile manufacturer you don’t really need to speculate about the use,” he said.

The analysis revealed what Joske described as a fundamental misalignment between the way universities approach research collaborations and how countries, including the UK, approach security interests. “Some of the collaborations that universities are engaged in with China are almost certainly harmful for national security and contributing to things that I don’t think the taxpayer would approve of,” he said.

He added that some laboratories ran risks of inadvertently violating export controls or laws around weapons of mass destruction.

, a China expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said Britain had not done sufficient work to understand the issue. “People need to wake up. The world has changed and I don’t think academia has kept up with that change or understands the challenge that China represents here. We are just sleepwalking into this.”

“We don’t want a cold war with China, we want to cooperate, but we should cooperate in those areas which are not a threat to our national interests, our national security and our values. You don’t help your potential enemies to produce weapons or techniques which could be used against you,” he added.

The British government is projected to spend £1.9bn on cybersecurity between 2016 and 2021. This is for all departments, including the MoD, the surveillance agency GCHQ and GCHQ’s front window, the National Cyber Security Centre.   

But the MoD is way behind in spending on cybersecurity, its involvement minuscule compared with GCHQ and the NCSC.  The MoD proudly announced in 2016 it was building a new cyber-defence operations centre at its Corsham base in Wiltshire but the amount, £40m, is tiny compared with overall departmental spending.

Parton said the government should work with UK academics to create a reference list of technologies that are permissible for them to work on with the Chinese military and defence industry. He said an equivalent system to List X contractors, who are permitted to do secret work for the government, was needed for UK-based academics “because a lot of this work is very grey”.

A spokesman for Imperial College London said: “These collaborations support research into fundamental technologies which could help develop lighter, safer and more efficient commercial aircraft worldwide. We are open about this work and conduct no classified research. All of the centres’ scientific outputs are in the public domain and are routinely published in leading international journals.

“Prior to formalising these collaborations, Imperial conducted its own due diligence. We worked with and received support from the Export Control Organisation (ECO), and we continue to work closely with the UK government. All relationships with third parties are subject to prior and continued review.”

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said academics had access to “trusted research guidance” that helped them make decisions about international collaborations, including those with hostile states.

A spokesperson at the University of Nottingham said their collaboration with the Commercial Aircraft Engine Company (ACAE), a subsidiary of AVIC, focussed on large passenger aircraft applications and was in line with government rules on export controls and the university’s internal research code of conduct and export control policy.

The University of Manchester did not provide a comment for this article.


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