Key illustration

The China research battle

U.S opposition to joint projects grows over fears
of Beijing’s military ascent

June 15, 2022

Collaboration between Chinese researchers and their international counterparts over sensitive technology with possible military uses has become increasingly contentious. Critics in the U.S. and allied countries claim this kind of cooperation, while legal, risks enhancing the capabilities of Beijing’s armed forces. China says there is nothing illegitimate about the work. Nikkei Asia took a look at the fierce debate over the red lines in academia.

‘Uncommon’ research

The DF-17 (Dong Feng-17), a Chinese missile system equipped with a hypersonic vehicle, was officially unveiled at a military parade in 2019. (Xinhua/Kyodo)

In 2020, Xidian University in China was the main publisher of an academic paper about the impact of high temperatures on radio wave transmissions from hypersonic vehicles. These crafts, which can travel at more than five times the speed of sound, are used for civilian purposes -- space shuttles, for example.

They are also of huge interest to military researchers.

Late last year, the Financial Times reported that the Chinese military had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, suggested that the test was "very close" to the kind of "Sputnik moment" that triggered the space race during the Cold War.

A striking dimension of the project was that it did not involve only the lead academic institution, Xidian University. One professor cited was affiliated with the University of New South Wales in Australia. It also included two Chinese companies with military connections. One was China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), which develops and supplies electronic warfare technology. The other was China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), whose subordinate organizations develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The research paper focused on antenna performance under radomes, covers that protect radar systems against wind and heat. Spacecraft reentering the atmosphere do not require radar guidance. Weapons, on the other hand, very much do.

This prompted some to ask whether the research would have military applications, three researchers not involved in the paper told Nikkei Asia. The academics asked to speak on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the subject. One professor familiar with hypersonic technology called the topic of the paper “uncommon” for commercial applications and said it was “likely to be used for military purposes.”

Two other experts who are involved in procurement and research related to hypersonic weapons said the paper seemed to indicate the vehicle was intended for one-time use only. They also said illustrations in the paper reminded them of missile technology.

In 2018, CASC, one of the Chinese partners in the project, claimed it conducted hypersonic missile experiments. Xu Wanye, co-author of the latest paper and an associate professor at Xidian University, conducted joint research on the electrical performance of antenna radomes in 2013 with the Air Force Xi’an Flight Academy, according to China National Knowledge Infrastructure, an online database of Chinese academic papers. The flight academy specializes in training military personnel in advanced air combat.

Neither CASC nor Xu responded to requests for comment.

The University of New South Wales said it screened all projects to make sure they do not involve uncomfortable research. A spokesperson told Nikkei Asia: “We take the issue of foreign interference seriously, and have implemented a comprehensive framework to detect and counter inappropriate foreign influence in our operations, which includes the appointment of a dedicated senior advisor on foreign interference, and a committee of senior university stakeholders to oversee foreign interference matters.”

At the same time, the spokesperson stressed that the university considers international research collaboration to be critical to Australia’s technological advancement. The university would continue to engage with foreign partners in pursuit of Australia’s interests, the spokesperson added.

Superpower in the making

China has become one of the world’s top military powers thanks in part to its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) policy. This is Beijing’s strategy for building its military and technological muscle by eliminating barriers between civilian commercial research and the defense sector. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established the Central Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development (CCMCFD) in 2017, President Xi Jinping himself took the role of chairman, underscoring the initiative’s significance.

The civilian side is playing an increasingly large part. More than 700 civilian researchers were recruited by the Academy of Military Science in 2020, marking a five-fold increase in two years, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.

"It is difficult for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to develop specialized experts on its own, which is why the technical capabilities of the private sector are needed under the MCF policy,” said Masaaki Yatsuzuka, a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Japan.

China may also be drawing some brain power from the West, critics say.

Last November, Xu Yanjun, whom the U.S. alleges to be a Chinese intelligence officer, was found guilty in Ohio of economic espionage and stealing trade secrets. A Justice Department statement said the evidence showed Xu had “used multiple aliases to target specific companies in the United States and abroad that are recognized as leaders in the field of aviation.”

One target was GE Aviation, a world-leading supplier of jet engines. In 2017, an employee was “solicited” to give a presentation at a university in China, and was introduced to Xu, the U.S. authorities claimed. Later, Xu requested “system specification, design process” information from the employee. The Justice Department said Xu “attempted to steal technology related to GE Aviation’s exclusive composite aircraft engine fan -- which no other company in the world has been able to duplicate -- to benefit the Chinese state.”

Chinese authorities insisted the charges were “pure fabrication.”

Either way, the military-civil strategy appears to be helping China close technological gaps and develop new equipment of its own. The government is throwing plenty of money at these endeavors. Its military spending in 2021 came to about $270 billion, second only to the U.S. total of $768 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates.

Backed by these abundant funds, China placed third in the Military Strength Ranking 2022 published by Global Firepower, a U.S. company that analyzes nations’ military strength.

World military strength ranking in 2022
Ranking of 142 countries and territories based on more than 50 individual factors, ranging from military might and financials to logistical capability and geography. *The smaller the value, the more powerful a country’s theoretical fighting capability.
Source: Global Firepower
Military capabilities for 2022: U.S. vs. China
Source: Global Firepower
China’s military spending is rising

(In trillions of constant 2020 dollars)

China and Russia’s 1992-2012 data are estimates.
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

China is going head-to-head with the U.S. to develop weapons that could redefine warfare, such as autonomous drones. China’s state-run Global Times claimed in 2019 that the country’s domestically developed unmanned helicopter drones can form a swarm that automatically coordinates strikes with explosive mortars, grenades and machine guns. China is reportedly selling other types of drones with military uses to U.S. partners in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The WZ-7, a remotely piloted surveillance aircraft made by China, was unveiled to the public for the first time at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in 2021.
The J-20, a stealth fighter jet in China’s PLA Air Force, flew at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in 2021. (Xinhua/Kyodo)

At the same time, China is sharpening older technologies, like stealth fighter jets. Until recently, the Chinese military’s jets were known to use copies of Russian engines. But the J-20, the latest fifth-generation fighter, sports domestic engines and has entered mass production, according to the Global Times.

Beijing has also sought to make the People’s Liberation Army operate more efficiently. It created the Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force in 2015, centralizing space, cyber, electronic, intelligence, communications and psychological warfare operations and capabilities.

All of this represents a push toward two goals Xi set at the Communist Party’s congress in 2017: to “basically complete” modernization by 2035, and to build a “world-class” military by the end of 2049.

Legitimate but opaque

Xi Jinping met representatives of the Central Military Commission of the CCP in 2018. (Xinhua/Kyodo)

As China pursues those objectives, critics contend that it downplays the military links of institutions involved in joint research with international partners.

They point to a notice the CCMCFD sent in 2017 through Xinhua, China’s official news agency. It said that “all kinds of social organizations in the field of Military-Civil Fusion, without approval, are not allowed to use words such as Ministry, Bureau, Committee, Head Quarters, Research Institute, and other words easily misunderstood as the state, military organs, and state-owned enterprises and institutions. If already used, it has to be changed immediately.”

In accordance with the order, the PLA Rocket Force Engineering University (RFEU) has used another, less conspicuous name on many academic papers: the “High-Tech Institute of Xi’an.” The Australian Strategic Policy Institute reported in 2018 that this English alias appears to exist only in research papers.

In 2021, a researcher at Toyama Prefectural University in Japan published a paper about radioactive water treatment. Hou Li’an, a professor at Beijing Normal University as well as the “High-Tech Institute of Xi’an” is listed as a co-author of the paper. The Japanese co-author of the paper, Keisuke Kuroda, claimed that he was not aware of the PLA connection. “I didn’t know the alias meant the PLA university,” Kuroda told Nikkei. “His affiliation had been only Beijing Normal University in the contract, but the High-Tech Institute of Xi’an was added to the draft afterward without any notice.”

Hou had won a military science and technology award in 2014 for his research on the environmental protection of nuclear missile positions, according to the website of the PLA Rocket Force Engineering University.

RFEU and Hou did not respond to requests for comment.

'火箭军工程大学(Rocket Force Engineering University)' is 'High-Tech Institute of Xi’an' and '火箭军装备研究院(Rocket Force Equipment Research Institute)' becomes 'High-Tech Institute of Beijing' in English. (Journal of Inorganic Materials)

PLA-linked bodies have used other aliases in academic papers, according to Nikkei research. For example, the PLA Rocket Force Equipment Research Institute, a subordinate organization to the Rocket Force, has used the name “High-Tech Institute of Beijing.”

One Chinese-language paper in the Journal of Inorganic Materials, published in 2016 by Science Press, uses the original names of the military institutions in Chinese but the only aliases in an English list of affiliations.

Some international researchers are concerned that potential military connections are not always clear. “The transparency of end users cannot be guaranteed” given the aliases used under the Chinese policy, ignoring international practices, said a senior Japanese governmental official who is familiar with export controls.

Weaknesses filled in

Skeptics of international collaboration with China on sensitive technologies say some of this work is aimed at filling important military gaps.

Nikkei Asia’s review of Scopus, an abstract and citation database of academic papers, sheds more light on the extent of joint research.

Nikkei focused on three sensitive technologies in papers with the help of experts: hypersonic vehicles, electromagnetic absorbing materials and autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles. Fronteo, a data analysis company based in Tokyo, used an AI learning model to extract academic papers with similar key phrases related to the three technologies in the titles and abstracts.

Focusing on the affiliation of the Chinese co-author, Nikkei found 473 papers on the three subjects authored by global researchers and Chinese partners from 39 military-linked institutions.

The papers -- written between 2017, when the CCMCFD was established, and January 2022 -- represent a small portion of the 45,000 papers on the three sensitive technologies in the database. Still, the global institutions involved were spread across 24 countries, showing the breadth of Chinese research cooperation.

Scope of sensitive research collaboration

Number of academic papers about sensitive technologies co-authored with military-linked Chinese institutions since 2017 (As of January 2022)

  • Hypersonic vehicles
  • Autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)
  • Radio wave absorption materials
Breakdown of all papers by subject
Top 10 country origins of co-author institutions
Analysis of joint academic papers between institutions in 24 countries and 39 Chinese institutions related to Chinese military organizations or on the U.S. Department of Commerce Entity List, regarding hypersonic vehicles, radio wave absorbers, or autonomous UAVs that could have military applications; analysis includes papers with similar key phrases related to these technologies in the titles and abstracts.
Source: Fronteo, Scopus, Nikkei research

Hypersonic vehicles had the most co-authored papers at 188, covering problems like attitude and position control, or materials and pressure changes under high-temperature conditions. Some international researchers say the sensitivity of these technologies means cooperation in vetting these projects is crucial.

“It is important to know Chinese partners well, but there are institutional limitations to verification by professors and universities, so support and information sharing by authorities are necessary,” said Heigo Sato, a professor at Takushoku University in Japan, who is familiar with the defense industry and military technology.

The most active Chinese institution in collaboration was Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU), known as one of the “Seven Sons of National Defense” -- a group of Chinese public universities that have collaborated with the PLA closely for decades.

One professor’s path from cooperative research to military ties

How a Chinese professor who co-authored an academic paper with foreign scholars founded a military company

Source: Scopus, Tianyancha, Xi’an Software Park Development Center, Northwestern Polytechnical University

In 2019, NWPU jointly published an academic paper about an advanced electromagnetic shield material. Drexel University, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology and Murata Manufacturing, Japan’s leading manufacturer of electronic components, are cited as the affiliations of the co-authors.

The paper describes the topic, MXene, as a material for smartphones. Koyu Urata, CEO at Japan Material Technologies Corporation, which does not conduct military research, said that MXene is in general a cutting-edge material that is functionally similar to carbon nanotubes, which can absorb radio waves. Some other observers suggest it could have military uses.

“Stealth fighters are designed to avoid receiving reflected radio waves as much as possible, and complementary radio wave absorbers are coated on parts of the body,” said Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Besides the J-20, China has been developing the FC-31, a stealth fighter aimed at export customers.

A spokesperson for Murata said: “We just authorized the use of MXene which had been prototyped by Drexel University at our request before, so we made no direct contribution to the paper. We’ve had no contact with the two Chinese professors at all, but didn’t confirm what kind of persons they were as co-authors.”

According to official data, Cheng Laifei, one of the co-authors from Northwestern Polytechnical University in China, is also the founder and chairman of a company dealing with ceramic composite materials. The university holds a 3% stake in the company, called Xi’an Xinyao Ceramic Composite Materials Co., Ltd. The information comes from the China National Intellectual Property Administration and Tianyancha, a database of publicly available corporate information.

“Military products account for more than 90% of total business,” said Wang Jiamin, the Xi’an Xinyao CEO, in an interview with a Chinese company supporting advanced software industries.

Neither Cheng, the other Chinese co-author from NWPU and, nor Xi’an Xinyao responded to requests for comment.

The clampdown

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks with Xi Jinping from the White House in November 2021. (Reuters)

Concerns about the possible military use of sensitive technologies have prompted some Western countries to toughen rules on research collaboration and take other steps to strengthen their own capabilities.

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the America Competes Act of 2022, a bill to shore up the domestic semiconductor industry and other strategic sectors.

The bill is expected to be reconciled this year with a version that passed the Senate in June 2021. That draft refers to the possibility of sanctioning companies of third countries that intentionally support China in the field of cybersecurity.

Last May, the U.K. amended its Academic Technology Approval Scheme, which screens those who intend to study at the postgraduate level in certain sensitive areas potentially related to military technology. The change expanded the scope of reviews from international students to foreign researchers.

“We work closely with universities, the U.K. government and relevant security agencies to help ensure they are able to identify, minimize and mitigate security-related risks in international collaborations,” said a spokesperson at Universities UK, an advocacy organization for British academic institutions.

Australia also toughened its foreign interference rules last November to safeguard the reputation of universities, protect students and faculty and ensure benefits from international joint research.

As governments clamp down, some experts say the risks of working with Chinese institutions may start to outweigh the rewards. “It’s a good idea to do as little research as possible with the Chinese institutes on the Entity List to decrease reputational risk,” said Stephen Rademaker, a senior of counsel at Covington & Burling LLP. The Entity List is a trade restriction list published by the U.S. Department of Commerce to bar U.S. companies from exporting certain sensitive technologies.

China has pushed back against these trends. In June 2021, its top legislative body passed the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law, which allows Beijing to take a wide range of countermeasures against foreign entities seen as harming Chinese interests.

Not on the same page

While many Western countries are getting tougher, Japan remains relatively permissive of research with China.

Japan’s industry and education ministries surveyed 320 Japanese universities in April 2021 and found that 34% had not yet established the means to screen international students.

Japanese universities* with screening mechanisms for foreign students

About 66% of Japanese universities have internal screening regulations for international students (As of April 2021)

Out of 320 universities:

*National, public and private universities with faculties of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, science and engineering Source: Joint survey by Ministry on Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry

Three lawyers who are familiar with export controls said the U.S. government has pressured Japan to build a security system comparable to its own. Although Japan tightened rules for international students in fiscal 2022 -- new regulations will require Japan’s minister of trade to grant permission for long-term foreign students to access important technology -- many believe this is not enough to satisfy Washington.

"If Japan is seen as less security conscious, it would lead to allied countries shunning joint research,” said a trade ministry official.

Making matters more complicated, the reality is that most advanced technologies can have multiple uses. “We should be more careful when dealing with sensitive technology because discussions and sharing of expertise that are not written on papers are generally common,” said Shu Kobayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo, who has authored international papers on organic synthesis.

Even within the U.S., the government and academics do not necessarily see eye-to-eye on research security.

The Department of Justice announced in February that the China Initiative, a program launched under the Donald Trump administration to counter Beijing’s alleged theft of intellectual property, will be terminated. Dozens of professors from top U.S. universities, such as Stanford, criticized the program for being biased against Asian-Americans and harming technological competitiveness.

Money and talent

Despite misgivings, China remains an important partner for global researchers and universities as a source of both money and talent.

“Some professors are tempted by abundant subsidies from China’s government that come with joint research,” said Masami Ito, a professor at the Gunma University Center for Innovation in Japan.

The deputy commander and director of mobilization of the Jiujiang military sub-district visited to inspect a drone at Jiangxi Zhuanglong UAV Technology in 2021. (Jiangxi Zhuanglong UAV Technology)

Some receive subsidies from Chinese military-related organizations. For instance, Beihang University published an academic paper regarding cooling systems for hypersonic vehicles in January 2022. Beihang University and the University of Leeds are the affiliations of one professor on the paper. The project was funded by the National Numerical Wind Tunnel, an aerodynamic numerical simulation software construction project led mainly by the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center. This Chinese institute is named as a military unit on the website of Harbin Engineering University. It is on the U.S. Entity List and the Japanese trade ministry’s End User List, a similar list, over concerns about missile proliferation.

Many analysts say that the institution is involved in the development of hypersonic missiles.

“Research for the paper in question was carried out as part of the academic’s employment at Beihang University and is completely separate to work undertaken through his part-time position at Leeds,” said a spokesperson at the University of Leeds. Beihang University did not respond the requests for comment.

The sheer number of students coming from China also makes overseas schools reluctant to burn bridges. In 2019, the country dispatched over 1 million students abroad according to UNESCO, the UN education and cultural organization. When they return to China, they will be crucial conduits for collaborative research, noted Takehiko Kazama, CEO of the Sansei Research Organization, a Japanese company that provides research and consulting on export controls and security.

For Chinese researchers, too, it can be difficult to balance science with the military’s demands under ever closer international scrutiny.

“Seven Sons”* graduates play major role in China’s defense industry

(Number of people)

  • China’s top 10 military enterprises
  • PLA
  • Private companies
2019 for Northwestern Polytechnical University, Harbin Engineering University and Harbin Institute of Technology; 2020 for Beijing Institute of Technology, and 2021 for the rest *Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics does not publish reports and thus is not included.
Source: Chinese universities’ employment quality reports

Consider the case of Cai Maolin, a former researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and SMC Corporation, Japan’s largest pneumatic equipment manufacturer.

After returning to China, he set up a company in 2015 called Liaoning Zhuanglong UAV Technology Co., Ltd., specializing in unmanned aerial vehicles. Along the way, he has obtained a patent for a bombing system for reconnaissance UAVs, according to the China National Intellectual Property Administration’s database. His company also participated in a military exercise with the PLA, according to an industry alliance that promotes military cooperation under the MCF initiative.

Currently, Cai is a professor at Beihang University and a participant in the Thousand Talents Plan, an effort to bring home notable Chinese scientists and entrepreneurs living abroad.

Cai told Nikkei that the bombing patent is “just an idea, not an actual product, and we’ve never provided UAVs to the PLA before, just participated in one military exercise in 2015.” Moreover, he added, “it would be a Cold War-era idea to halt all joint research at the request of the U.S.”

A military deputy commander visited Cai’s company to see its UAV in 2021, according to the business’s website. “It is difficult to turn down a request for a tour from a military officer as a private company,” Cai told Nikkei.

Even so, a Japanese former professor who mentored Cai for two decades told Nikkei on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue that he was “very disappointed.” He said he had told Cai that the pneumatic technology they worked on “should not be applied to military research.” Cai said that pneumatic technology is intended for automation and its conversion to military use seems to be a fantasy.

The contrasting perspectives on Cai’s work highlight the growing intensity of the debate about ties between Chinese researchers and international counterparts. As tensions rise between Beijing and Washington, those tensions will further sharpen -- especially where potential military uses are involved.