U.K. Intelligence Agencies Flag Fears Over University China Ties

The U.K.’s intelligence agencies have raised concerns over links between British universities and the Chinese government amid claims sensitive defense technology is being passed to Beijing.

Customs officials responsible for enforcing rules over exports of defense technology have been alerted after an investigation into co-operation between academics from the U.K. and China, according to a person familiar with the matter. No enforcement notices have yet been issued.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, called for the government to clamp down on British universities’ financial and research relationships with China to stop the flow of intellectual property and secrets.

“The Government must introduce rules that govern the research British higher education institutions carry out with Chinese involvement, sponsorship or support,” Tugendhat wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper. “Particular attention must be paid to science and technology, where it is clear our competitive advantage is being handed to a strategic adversary.”

The investigation comes at a time when London’s relationship with Beijing is at a low ebb and tensions over the future of Hong Kong residents and Beijing’s treatment of Uighur minorities in Xinjiang province threaten to spill over to the two countries’ economic relationship. The U.K. has already cutback Huawei Technologies Co.’s role in the development of new mobile phone networks amid security concerns.

This month Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sought to move relations with the U.K. onto a “firmer footing” as sources of tension continued to build between the nations in the early weeks of the Biden administration.

The two sides need to “take forward the friendship and co-operation between the Chinese and British people,” Li said in a keynote address to an online event hosted by Chinese and U.K. business groups on Feb. 3. “No matter how the regional and international landscape may evolve, China’s commitment to its relations to the U.K. remains as strong as ever.”

A report published on Monday by Civitas, a think tank, said the monitoring of relationships between British higher education institutions and China is “inadequate” and U.K. research and technology may “inadvertently” find its way into the hands of Chinese military manufacturers through sponsorship and research tie-ups.

“China is demonstrating rapid technological-military development and growing force-projection capabilities,” the report said. “To risk financing and enabling these developments suggests a lack of strategic coordination.”

The authors did not accuse individual academics or institutions of knowingly sharing sensitive research with Chinese institutions for use in military activity, but highlighted the risk it may have been exploited in that way.

The government in London said in a statement that there are already controls on exports and universities are expected to follow them.

“Exporters of military goods and those engaged in the transfer of military technology specified in the Export Control Order 2008 - including universities and academics - require a license to export or transfer from the U.K.,” the department said in a statement. “It is their responsibility to comply with the regulations.”

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