New Zealand universities and businesses are providing valuable knowledge and technology to Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) via collaborations with their Chinese counterparts. These collaborations could inadvertently be “accelerating” the modernisation of the Chinese Communist Party’s military arm, according to a new report.
China expert Prof. Anne-Marie Brady, who co-authored the July study for the Wilson Center, found researchers at New Zealand’s universities were partnering with several Chinese institutions with links to the PLA.
Although many academic collaborations were “benign” in nature, the paper warns that the New Zealand government and universities needed to be more proactive in dealing with Beijing’s willingness to exploit “civilian links with Western countries to access cutting-edge scientific expertise with military-end-use.”
Despite the relative size of the country’s university sector (with eight institutions), the report found that on a “per institution basis” New Zealand published more joint research with PLA-affiliated universities than the United States over the last 25 years.
The findings revealed that New Zealand institutions published “70 joint papers” at a ratio of around “eight PLA-connected papers per New Zealand university.”
Meanwhile, the United States, with over 1,200 accredited universities, published 1,779 papers at a ratio of about one paper per U.S. university.
Co-opting civilian research for potential military use by Beijing has become a geopolitical flashpoint in recent years. In 2017, the PLA formally codified its Civil Military Fusion doctrine, which mandates that technologies developed by private companies and institutions can be repurposed for military use if needed.
The goal is part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s push to fast-track the PLA’s modernisation from a land-based army to a multi-faceted military force.
In the U.S., the Trump administration has begun pushing back against these efforts by scrutinising companies and academics with links to the PLA. Most recently, a Chinese researcher at Stanford University was charged with visa fraud for not disclosing her relationship with the Chinese military, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Massey University’s Previous Connection with Chinese Military Research
In New Zealand, one example of academic collaboration with the PLA involved Massey University partnering with Chinese artificial intelligence firm iFlytek.
In 2017, university scientists flew to Hefei in China for the official signing of an agreement with iFlytek to fund a position at Massey. The position was filled by Wang Ruili.
iFlytek has attracted controversy because of its development of speech recognition technology which has been used by Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security for mass surveillance programs on Uyghur Muslims. The company has since been blacklisted by the U.S. government. In late 2019, Massey University faced criticism for its relationship with iFlytek.
Professor Wang Ruili split his time between Massey and supervising seven doctoral students at the National University of Defence and Technology (NUDT), arguably the “premier” and best-funded PLA university in China.
NUDT has a track record of research into “supercomputers, autonomous vehicles, hypersonic weapons,” and the Beidou satellite system—China’s main competitor to the U.S.-owned GPS satellite.
Wang and his students have also been involved in the development of “unmanned systems” which was lauded by Chinese General Yang Xuejun as the “core of weapon equipment.” The general, who is also president of the Academy of Military Sciences, encouraged NUDT researchers to “seize the historical opportunity of intelligent unmanned combat.”
On Aug. 3, a Massey University spokesperson confirmed with The Epoch Times that it no longer has a relationship with iFlytek.
The Wilson Center report also found PLA connections with the University of Auckland, Victoria University in Wellington, Auckland University of Technology, University of Canterbury, and Otago University.
In the business realm, Chinese universities and enterprises have also been collaborating with New Zealand-based companies.
In 2014, major Chinese state-owned automotive and machine manufacturer, Beijing Automobile Industry Company (BAIC) acquired a 50 percent interest in Pacific Aerospace, based in Hamilton, New Zealand.
The company’s flagship drone cargo plane model (the P-750-XSTOL) was subsequently adopted and flown in China under a different moniker (the AT-200) and has now been adapted for military use, specifically for “counter-insurgency and light attack.”
Potential International Fallout
The report warned that New Zealand could be at risk of breaching its obligations under the Wassenaar Arrangement, a multilateral agreement aimed at controlling the export of weapons and sensitive dual-use goods and technologies.
Further, the country risked “major reputational damage” if the government did not address issues related to technology transfer to Beijing, especially given the tight-knit nature of the scientific community. New Zealand’s scientists and technology firms could potentially be “shut out of international collaborations and business opportunities.”
It pointed to the recent D10 proposal by the UK government, which would see a grouping of countries come together to develop alternative 5G technologies outside of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei.
The proposal did not include New Zealand, despite other Five Eyes’ nations being earmarked for inclusion (Australia, United States, and Canada).
The New Zealand government has received criticism for not officially banning Huawei’s involvement in its 5G network, instead, leaving the decision to local telecommunications firm Spark. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also not ruled out Huawei’s participation in the future.