In its annual report to Congress on China’s military released earlier this month, the Department of Defense (DOD) concluded that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exploits “research and academic partnerships” to obtain foreign technology for its ambitious military modernization program. These licit and illicit efforts are part of Beijing’s state-driven, systematic exploitation of America’s private companies and public institutions for the purpose of eroding U.S. military superiority.
DOD’s conclusion echoes the intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, which warned that the CCP “takes a multifaceted, long-term, whole-of-government approach to foreign technology acquisition and indigenous technology development.” A year earlier, in January 2018, a report from DOD’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) had already observed that China leverages U.S.-based academic institutions and research centers to acquire new technology.
The DIUx report noted that approximately 25 percent of graduate students in the U.S. studying science, technology, engineering, and math are Chinese foreign nationals who “take their knowledge and skills back to China” because they do not have visas to remain in the United States. As a result, “Chinese science and engineering students frequently master technologies that later become critical to key military systems, amounting over time to unintentional violations of U.S. export control laws.”
The number of Chinese students in the U.S. has increased in recent years, with 328,000 Chinese foreign nationals studying at U.S. colleges and universities in 2016. This poses a challenge for government agencies tasked with preventing Beijing from exploiting these students. Senior U.S. counterintelligence official William Evanina explained, “Ninety-nine point nine percent of those students are here legitimately and doing great research and helping the global economy. But it is a tool that is used by the Chinese government to facilitate nefarious activity here in the U.S.”
In addition, DIUx found that Chinese companies, including telecommunications giant Huawei (now under indictment for Iran sanctions violations and theft of trade secrets), establish partnerships with academic institutions to acquire research and recruit talent. Belatedly, universities are recognizing the problems associated with these relationships.
In its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the U.S. intelligence community warned, “China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community.” In responding, the U.S. must keep faith with its democratic values while preventing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from stealing technology it may someday use to kill Americans.
Proposals to block Chinese nationals from studying at U.S. universities would be inconsistent with those values and contrary to America’s interests. While China relies on financial incentives and career advancement opportunities to persuade Chinese-born scientists and engineers to return from abroad, studies show that when the foreign students can remain in the United States after graduation, they choose to do so and contribute to U.S. innovation.
To prevent the Chinese government from exploiting U.S. universities and research centers to acquire military-related technologies, the federal government should employ carefully targeted approaches. For example, the State Department does not review visa applications with an eye toward “the protection of critical technologies,” according to the DIUx study. A good first step would be for the U.S. government to publish a comprehensive, unclassified list of research, scientific, and engineering institutions associated with China’s PLA and Ministry of State Security.
This transparency would make it more difficult for these institutions to continue their nefarious activities. It would also put the burden of proof on affiliated individuals requesting visas to travel to the United States to demonstrate that they are not contributing to Beijing’s efforts to acquire national security-related technology.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Annie Fixler is deputy director of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI). Follow Bradley and Annie on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman and @afixler. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.