A Times investigation has revealed that collaborations between British scientists and institutes with deep connections to China’s defence forces have tripled in six years.
326 Oxford academics have collaborated with professors from Chinese military universities, known as the “Seven Sons of National Defence,” since 2015. Graduates from these universities were banned from entering the United States in 2020, as part of American efforts to curb suspected Chinese theft of intellectual property and technology. Oxford University has also accepted more than £24 million from Chinese sources since 2015, the third highest in the UK.
This picture is replicated across the Russell Group. Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge have accepted a combined £100 million from Chinese sources since 2015. Researchers from across the prestigious association’s component universities have also collaborated with Chinese military academics on 1,069 papers in 2021. Many of these papers were on sensitive “dual-use” research, involving technology that can be used for military aims as well as civilian purposes. This included: drones, electromagnetic technology capable of firing projectiles, cutting edge aerospace materials, radar, jamming equipment and high-performance batteries.
Often, the military applications of this dual-use research are barely disguised. Terence Langdon, of the University of Southampton, has co-authored 18 papers on materials science with a Chinese warhead designer. His Chinese co-author’s research specialism is to develop new materials technologies in ammunition, warheads, “damage mechanisms and endpoint effects,” and nanomaterials. Meanwhile, Imperial College London accepted £5 million to fund research into aerospace materials from three companies linked to the Chinese military. Two of those companies are subsidiaries of the defence contractor that manufactures China’s fighter aircraft. All are under U.S sanctions.
It is against this backdrop that British security officials have begun to voice their concerns.
Whitehall sources speaking to the Times warned that Britain was in an “arms race” with China and must protect cutting-edge technology that would give a military advantage. Tom Tugendhat MP, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said that “some British academics have turned a blind eye to the implications of working on military technologies with China”.
Echoing this sentiment, Martin Thorley, a Chinese international policy specialist, said: “The findings appear to demonstrate some sector-wide failings in terms of checks on donations and research partners. They also include some instances of co-operation on projects with clear military applications that suggest outright recklessness by the British institutions involved. For some British universities and their staff, there appears to be a genuine risk of contributing directly to the development of technology employed by the People’s Liberation Army.”
Considered most worrying is research focused on railgun technology. These cutting-edge weapons use electrical currents to generate magnetic fields capable of accelerating a projectile at high velocities. Both the Chinese and the US governments have been looking to develop the technology to equip naval vessels and aircraft carriers with weapons and devices that launch aircraft.
Professor Chris Gerada, of the University of Nottingham, has co-authored four papers with Chinese colleagues from one of the “Seven Sons of National Defence”. These papers detail the applications of compulsators, power-supply devices that are a key component of railguns. The university said the research was “wholly focused” on reducing carbon emissions in passenger aircraft, was fully peer-reviewed and published openly. However, the Chinese university profile for one of Gerada’s co-authors lists his research interests as “special motors” used in fields of national defence, as well as “flywheel energy storage technology and its military-civilian integration application”.
Government guidance recommends that universities carefully consider their collaborations, check whether their research has “national security implications” and establish whether their funding partners pose “ethical or security concerns”. The guidance, aimed at preventing unwitting academics being lured in by hostile states, was compiled by the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), a wing of MI5. It warns that joint research can be “vulnerable to misuse”, urging them to check whether their research could benefit the military of hostile states and to consider the reputational risks of collaborations. It highlights the issue of dual-use research, where technology can be developed for civilian aims but redeployed in the military.
Despite the warnings, British academics are increasingly working closely with Chinese colleagues who make no secret of their military research aims. A Times source alleged that “the government seems to be more bothered about placating universities than actually dealing with the fact that many of them are teaching the Chinese military how to build super weapons.”
A Russell Group spokesman said: “Research-intensive universities treat issues of national security extremely seriously, undertaking robust due diligence checks in line with government guidance.”
A government spokesman said that international research collaboration was “central to our position as a science superpower” but added: “We will not accept collaborations which compromise our national security and the government continues to support the sector to identify and mitigate the risks of interference.”
The University of Oxford has been approached for comment.
Image: Gadiel Lazcano