Australia taps China ‘knowledge boom’ despite espionage fears

For more than a decade Australia enjoyed a China-led mining boom that fuelled economic growth. Now, it is basking in a “knowledge boom”, as China overtakes the US as the nation’s leading international partner in producing scientific publications.

Data published by University of Technology Sydney on Wednesday show about one in six of Australia’s 85,351 scientific publications last year involved at least one Chinese-affiliated researcher. The number of Australia-China partnerships increased by 13.1 per cent in 2019 while collaborations with US researchers on scientific publications decreased by 0.3 per cent.

The report by the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS says Australia is more intensively engaged with China than with its other main research partners — the US, UK, Germany and Canada — despite growing concerns in Canberra about espionage, cyber attacks and intellectual property theft perpetrated by foreign actors, particularly those linked to Beijing.

Australia-China collaborations now make up 16.2 per cent of total Australian scientific publications, up from 3.1 per cent in 2005.

US-China collaboration also deepened last year with 56,487 US scientific publications involving a China-affiliated researcher, a 6.8 per cent increase on 2018, even as relations between Washington and Beijing soured.

“There is a lot of talk about technological decoupling between the US and China but if you look at scientific research publications that collaboration continues to increase,” said James Laurenceson, director of Acri. “The reality is that China has emerged as a hub of global knowledge creation.”

Washington and Canberra are stepping up their scrutiny of scientific collaboration. In May US president Donald Trump issued a proclamation barring entry to researchers regarded as posing a risk of passing technological knowledge to the Chinese military.

Last year Canberra established a task force to protect universities from foreign influence. This followed concerns raised by Human Rights Watch about a A$10m (US$7m) research partnership between UTS and China Electronics Technology Group Corp (CETC), a state-owned company that has developed an app used to track Muslim Uighur citizens in Xinjiang, the western Chinese province where there have been mass detentions over the past two years.

Following a review, UTS said it would cease work on one of its projects with CETC, which potentially raised concerns identified in the HRW report. The review also identified the opaqueness of CETC’s ownership as a “further challenge”.

Australia's leading partners in producing scientific publications

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University and author of a book on Chinese influence activities, said he expected research collaboration between the US-China to fall because of tough measures introduced by the Trump administration. But he said this might not happen in Australia.

“The federal government has so far failed to take the bull by the horns — there is no evidence of a serious move to prevent scientists from collaborating even when they may be working on security or military technologies,” he said.

The Acri report says collaboration with China involves risks, including the potential for the Chinese government to influence the process of scientific discovery, as seen in its subjecting domestic Covid-19 research to vetting before publication. But collaboration also brings benefits, which are under threat due to “allegations and headlines” not well-supported by facts.

“Australian research institutions have been accused of engaging in research that ‘supports China’s goals, not ours’, ‘surrendering’ the nation’s research capabilities, allowing Beijing to ‘steal’ intellectual property and facilitating ‘valuable information’ being passed on to Chinese intelligence agencies. The evidence does not support such sweeping claims,” says the report.