Uni crisis talks as China espionage fears grow

21 Aug Uni crisis talks as China espionage fears grow

Wednesday 21 August – The Australian Financial Review – Phillip Coorey

Education department officials as well as national security and cybersecurity experts will meet university representatives on Wednesday to thrash out guidelines governing collaborative research, amid government concerns over growing Chinese encroachment.

Senior sources said the government was especially concerned with collaboration in such areas as artificial intelligence, quantum physics and some engineering disciplines.

In addition, the government worries that the access China has secured to the sector may have enabled the massive data breach at the Australian National University in late 2018, and only discovered in June, which resulted in two decades of student and staff date being accessed.

After weeks of growing pressure on universities from the government and its security apparatus over growing Chinese influence, the meetings in Canberra are designed to give the university sector the clarity which it has been demanding.

The meetings were arranged by mutual agreement after federal Education Minister Dan Tehan addressed the sector with his concerns at a private session in Wollongong the week before last.

Australia’s university sector especially, the prestigious Group of Eight, has allowed itself to become financially dependent on Chinese students. The sector argues it had little choice but to chase the foreign dollar in recent years in response to large funding cuts.

The government and its security agencies feel the sector has become compromised and over past weeks and months, the sector has been given multiple briefings by such agencies as ASIO, the Home Affairs Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Signals Directorate voicing concerns about Chinese influence.

Central to the concerns are the joint research projects Australian universities undertake with Chinese universities and other institutions. The university sector has complained that while ASIO and others repeatedly express concern over research collaboration, they have not been specific enough.

Earlier this week, Peter Varghese, the chancellor of the University of Queensland and a former secretary of the Foreign Affairs department, called on the government to clarify which research it deemed out of bounds and to draw a red line.

“It’s important to recognise the benefits to Australia from research collaboration with China,” he told The Australian newspaper.

“The gaining of knowledge is a collaborative effort and if Australia wants to continue to be a strong performer in innovation, you don’t want to cut off your capacity to work with Chinese scholars in areas which don’t go to national security.”

The meetings will involve officials and representatives from the Education Department, the Home Affairs Department, the Group of Eight, Universities Australia. The universities will also send their experts in cybersecurity and intellectual property.

Just over a year ago, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull upbraided the university sector for allowing itself to become captive to Beijing.

Sources say Prime Minister Scott Morrison has adopted a less hostile and more pragmatic approach and sees it as a problem which needs to be rectified.

Victorian Liberal Senator James Patterson spoke out on Tuesday about the concerns.

“Our universities have an extraordinary amount of their revenue from international students, particularly from China,” he told Sky News.

“There a lot of benefits to that. There’s the cross cultural exchange. It’s one of our major exports. It’s not a bad thing inherently, but it does make our universities highly sensitive to criticism of China and the impact that could have on student flows.

“The other aspect of course is that we know that there are many countries that seek to influence Australia in more overt and concerted ways and particular they seek to do that on campus, and we need to guard very jealously against that as well.

“Research cooperation is a highly productive area of activity for our universities, and we do it with a range of nations and a range of researchers from all around the world, China included. That’s not inherently bad, but if it is in sensitive areas, we have to be very careful.”

Separately, in an interview conducted with Channel Seven last week but not broadcast until Tuesday, Mr Morrison admitted it was getting tougher to manage the Chinese relationship.

Asked what kept him awake at night, Mr Morrison said: “This is going to be one of the most difficult periods in which to manage our relationships with some of the biggest powers in the world, and Australia is living in a part of the world that is the focus of all this.”

“There’s plenty of things to get down about, there’s no doubt about that. But dealing with these challenges at present, yeah we’re aware of them, we’re very conscious of them.

“There’s no flashing light that needs to go off for me to understand some of these pressures but equally so I’m not diminished in any confidence that we can overcome them all and make it work.

He also warned there would be no quick end to the trade war between China and the United States.

“I think we’re going to have to get used to this for a while, this level of tension,” Mr Morrison said.

“We’ve just got to accommodate that, we’ve got to absorb it, we’ve got to see the opportunities in it, of which there are many.”

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