EXCLUSIVE — A high-stakes arms race between the United States and China could lead to a breakdown of joint research partnerships across the two societies due to federal suspicions that Beijing exploits the initiatives to acquire sensitive U.S. technology for the People’s Liberation Army.
Chinese Communist Party spy agencies have launched a relentless campaign to acquire American intellectual property that can propel the country's bid for “economic and technological leadership” vis-a-vis the U.S., as FBI Director Christopher Wray put it in 2020. Those cloak-and-dagger operations are reinforced by an array of research networks operating in the open, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee fears, and the misgiving has spurred a new congressional effort aimed at “preventing PLA acquisition of United States technology,” as the legislative title has it, by cracking down on U.S. entities linked to China's so-called military-civil fusion strategy.
“Beijing will lie, cheat, and steal to become more powerful than the United States,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. “All too often, our nation’s scientists and experts partner with their Chinese counterparts without understanding how their research will be weaponized by the Chinese military.”
Rubio has proposed a bill that would ban “any scientific research or technical exchange that has a direct bearing on, or the potential for dual use in, the development of technologies” in several high-end research areas, including quantum computing, aerospace technology, telecommunications, and artificial intelligence. The restrictions would apply to an ambiguous array of “Chinese entities of concern” that have arranged research partnerships with U.S.-funded agencies, colleges and universities, and private companies.
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“It’s hard to say, ‘This one directly leads to a Chinese military platform,’” a Rubio aide told the Washington Examiner. “That’s part of why we’re doing the bill — basically to get the secretary of defense in consultation with other federal agencies to being to track this and identify the key areas.”
Research and development expertise has emerged as one of the key theaters of U.S.-China competition in recent years as Chinese officials have a faster decision-making process and a “comparable” engineering timeline to the U.S.
“I looked recently at the J-20, their most modern fighter, for example, and the development time for that aircraft was comparable to the F-35. It was not remarkably faster. But they do seem to be very creative and innovative,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. “They are studying how we fight, what we depend upon to project power in particular, and designing systems that are — that are intended to defeat us.”
That Chinese fighter jet is widely perceived to be modeled on its American rivals. “Its fuselage shape, engine intake shape, exhaust nozzle shape, and even the paint design mirror the F-22 and F-35,” Center for Security Policy analyst Maya Carlin wrote in 1945. Secret documents released following National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s infamous leak reportedly said that “many terabytes of data specific to the F-35 joint strike fighter program were stolen.”
Research partnerships of the sort Rubio hopes to preclude could also help Chinese officials develop weapons systems to offset, rather than match, major U.S. capabilities, as shown in government analysis of the risks posed by China’s military-civil fusion strategy.
“Microsoft has collaborated with China’s National University of Defense Technology — one of the PLA’s premier defense research institutions — on AI research that may have military applications,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted in its 2019 report to Congress. “Similarly, California-based Teledyne Technologies, Inc. has partnered with Yunzhou Tech, a Chinese firm that has developed missile-equipped unmanned ships and has partnered with universities tied to the PLA. In August 2019, one of Teledyne’s subsidiaries was awarded a defense contract by the U.S Naval Undersea Warfare Center to develop autonomous underwater vehicles.”
The breadth of the restrictions would depend on how the executive branch defines the terms that govern the legislation, which could range from obvious cases involving defense contractors to major universities or perhaps even companies such as Elon Musk’s pioneering electric car company, Tesla, which has a major presence in the Chinese market.
“I can't say that Tesla would for sure be on it, but ... they’ve received government funding, and yet they're in the Chinese market,” the Rubio aide said. “Are they collaborating with MCF entities?”
Such determinations, under the proposed legislation, would be made by the Defense Department “in consultation with” other relevant federal agencies.
“We have a lot of institutions that are either federally funded or affiliated with our governments, and there's clear technology spillage,” the Rubio aide said. “This would be up to the Department of Defense. We give the definitions, but basically, it’s up to them to come up with [the list of companies affected by] this law.”
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Rubio would require that list to be developed within six months of the bill’s passage, if it became law, and then updated annually.
“The Chinese Communist Party is our No. 1 threat,” he said. “My bill will prevent this type of collaboration and protect federally funded research from falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army.”