Japan to Fortify Universities Against Leaks of US Technology

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
March 27, 2019 Updated: March 27, 2019

Japan is looking to bolster the country’s academic monitoring system to prevent leaks of sensitive U.S. technologies to other countries such as China through its universities.

Many Japanese universities have become recipients of advanced technologies through various research partnerships with companies and institutes from other countries, including the United States and China. That creates the risk that U.S. technology could end up in the hands of Chinese companies.

To guard against these possible leaks, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry is set to revise guidelines for the management of technology at universities under the country’s Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law, The Japan News reported March 24. The move is also aimed at bringing the country in line with U.S. technology export policy.

The new guidelines would be applied to fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology, according to the outlet.

In 2018, the United States tightened export controls with the passing of the Export Control Reform Act. The measure expands the power of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) to regulate the export or transfer of “emerging and foundational technologies” to protect national security.

The BIS is currently developing a list of fields, including artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing, that will be subject to firmer export restrictions. These fields produce technologies that have dual civilian and military use, triggering national security concerns should it fall into enemy hands.

Both domestic and foreign universities could face heavy penalties for failing to comply with such export restrictions.

Japan’s Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law also restricts the transfer of technologies that can be used for military purposes to foreign companies and entities.

The new guidelines, Japan News reported, will include examples of how advanced technologies could be leaked, preventative measures Japanese universities could take, and broaden the scope of advanced technologies to be monitored. 

A government survey found that 1,061 Japanese universities conducted 351 joint research projects with foreign companies and other entities in 2017, a one-third increase from 2013, according to Japan News.

Meanwhile, total research funding tied to these projects has increased to 1.73 billion yen ($15.7 million) from 1.16 billion yen ($10.5 million) during the same period.

The outlet identified Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei as one of the companies with whom Japanese universities have partnered to conduct research. The company has faced intense scrutiny in the United States and elsewhere over concerns that its products could be exploited by Beijing for spying.

Foreign students involved in these research partnerships could also be a source of possible leaks, the outlet reported.

According to Japanese information portal Nippon, about 40 percent of the 267,042 international students studying in Japan in 2017 came from China.

Japanese Concerns

Like the United States, Japan is grappling with the growing threat of cyber espionage and technology theft from China.

In December 2018, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on its website that China-based cyber hacking group APT10 had continually attacked its companies and academic institutions.  

The group was allegedly behind a 2016 attack against industry lobby group Japan Business Federation, The Japan Times reported in January. The stolen data included information concerning the group’s policy recommendations, membership details of internal committees, and internal emails.

Also in December 2018, two Chinese hackers from APT10 were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) for carrying out extensive hacking campaigns to steal intellectual property from military service members, government agencies, and private companies in the United States, and a dozen countries. According to the DOJ, the two hackers acted in association with the Tianjin City bureau of the Ministry of State Security, China’s top intelligence agency.

An October 2018 editorial by Japan’s The Liberty Magazine sounded the alarm over Chinese intellectual property theft through the country’s research sector.

It noted that the regime would identify a Japanese technology that it wanted to acquire, and then have Chinese universities or businesses approach the institution possessing the technology. The Chinese entities would propose collaboration and provide funds for the projects, thus opening the door for the transfer of Japanese technology to China.

The editorial also flagged the problem of industrial espionage carried out by Chinese nationals.  

“Many of our Chinese engineers disappear after going to China on a business trip,” an unnamed employee who works in the intellectual property department at a major Japanese electronic appliance company told The Liberty Magazine.  

“We have no way to prove if they were involved with economic espionage.”

Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.