Friday, February 3, 2023

Chinese ‘Espionage’ Of US Military Technology Could Receive A Serious Jolt As Republicans Take Charge Of House Of Representatives

When the Republicans take charge of the US House of Representatives next month, President Biden’s policy towards China will come under greater scrutiny by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Michael McCaul.

US Identifies China’s DF-17 Hypersonic Missile As ‘Biggest Threat’ That Could Strike Critical Military Bases

McCaul, who represents the 10th District of Texas, and his fellow Republicans say that the Biden Administration has failed in curbing Chinese espionage in America, particularly the systematic way Beijing is “stealing” US research and technology, both civil and military.

Republicans have maintained that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been using stolen American technologies to manufacture advanced weapons for many years. In October 2021, they issued an open letter to that effect.

According to McCaul, the research and technology stolen by the CCP resulted in China creating advanced weapons, including a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile launched last year.

“US software and tools likely contributed to the creation of this weapons system because of our country’s permissive export controls and licensing policies with China,” the Republicans’ letter said.

With McCaul now in an important position, there will be more pressure on the Biden Administration to tighten rules and procedures against Chinese activities in the United States, including the ongoing research collaborations between the two countries’ universities and other academic/ research establishments. And there will be a greater focus on what McCaul says “our export control system has failed to protect US technologies from fueling the rise of our adversaries’ militaries and surveillance regimes.”

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China Recruiting Overseas Scientists

The Republicans’ case against China has been dramatically strengthened by the recently released report of Strider Technologies, Inc that details China’s decades-long recruitment of leading scientists from the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The report, called “The Los Alamos Club,” reveals that between 1987 and 2021, at least 162 Chinese scientists who had worked at Los Alamos returned to China to support various domestic research and development programs.

“Fifteen of those scientists worked as permanent staff members at Los Alamos. Of those fifteen, thirteen were recruited into PRC government talent programs; some were responsible for sponsoring visiting scholars and postdoctoral researchers from the PRC, and some received US government funding for sensitive research,” the text of the Strider report states. And these scientists returned to China after holding a highly-sensitive “Q Clearance” allowing access to Top Secret Restricted Data and National Security Information.

The Strider Report reveals how Chinese scientists with ties to the Chinese government essentially recruited additional scientists with critical technology area expertise and access to US-driven scientific innovation of military significance during their time at Los Alamos.

It specifies that as many as 59 scientists of the 162 who returned to China after working at Los Alamos were part of a special Chinese “talent recruitment program” called the Thousand Talents Program and its youth branch called the Youth Thousand Talents Program.

“This report documents the ambitions of the PRC’s talent strategy and its exploitation of Western commitments to global scientific collaboration,” the Los Alamos Club writes, giving specifics related to particular scientists and impactful areas of weapons exploration.

Specifically, the report says the work of Chinese scientist Dr. Chen Shiyi, an expert at Los Alamos throughout the 90s, “made important contributions that allowed the PRC to surpass the US in air-breathing hypersonic vehicle research and development.”

After spending the 90s at Los Alamos, Shiyi returned to China where, as President of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), he succeeded in recruiting scientists with ties to Los Alamos. SUSTech is a Chinese-government-funded institution said to operate with the ambition of becoming “China’s Stanford.”

The Los Alamos Club says, “the People’s Republic of China Recruited Leading Scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory to Advance Its Military Programs.” Its key findings are:

  • Hypersonics and Aerodynamics: Dr. Chen Shiyi spent the 1990s at Los Alamos and, after returning to China, served as President of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), where he excelled at recruiting scientists with links to Los Alamos. Dr. Chen Shiyi is a world-renowned fluid dynamics and turbulence expert who has made significant contributions to China’s hypersonics and aerodynamics programs.
  • Deep Penetrating Warheads: One of Dr. Chen’s first recruits, Zhao Yusheng, spent 18 years of his career at Los Alamos; Zhao received grants totaling $19.8 million in US government funding, including for sensitive research on deep-earth penetrating warheads. While at the lab, Zhao sponsored a postdoctoral researcher who filed a national defense patent on similar technology upon returning to the PRC. The researcher is now affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), the PRC’s premier nuclear weapons R&D and production facility.
  • Submarine Noise Reduction: Dr. He Guowei is contributing to the PRC’s efforts to develop quieter submarines to evade detection. While at Los Alamos in the late 1990s, Dr. He cooperated extensively with Dr. Chen Shiyi. After he returned to the PRC, Dr. He worked at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Mechanics (IMCAS), where his team developed computer models that helped to quickly and accurately predict turbulence generated by submarines.
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: In 2016, Chen Shiyi recruited Dr. Shan Xiaowen to serve in SUSTech’s Department of Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering. Shan worked at Los Alamos from 1991 to 1998 and collaborated with Chen in the early ’90s. In 2019, Dr. Shan became Head of the SUSTech Intelligent Aviation R&D Center, focusing on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technologies. Under Shan’s leadership, the center produced a prototype Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) UAV with civil and military applications.

Incidentally, it is not only the Chinese scholars but also the Chinese businessmen who have been implicated in stealing US research and technology. So much so that in 2021, Massachusetts-based businessman Qin Shuren pleaded guilty in the US Justice Department’s crackdown on the illegal export of strategic technologies.

Qin’s company, LinkOcean Technologies, had falsified documentation to send a Chinese military-affiliated university some $100,000 worth of equipment, including hydrophones, sonobuoys, side-scan sonars, and even an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). The Justice Department’s press release said that Mr. Qin was working at the direction of Northwestern Polytechnical University in the northwest Chinese city of Xi’an.

NWPU is one of the “Seven Sons of National Defense,” a group of universities known for particularly close ties to the People’s Liberation Army and which contribute a high proportion of China’s defense workforce and research. For two decades, NWPU has been on the US Department of Commerce Entity List, the group of foreign organizations and individuals to which the export of certain US strategic technologies is restricted.

According to Ma Xiu, an analyst of Chinese defense, and PW Singer, a Strategist at think-tank New America, several of NWPU’s defense labs work on areas related to Qin’s case. The Key Lab for Underwater Information and Control conducts a wide range of strategic underwater research into sensing, acoustics, information processing, navigation, and communications for underwater vehicles, including submarines and AUVs.

Along with its smaller sister, the National Lab of Acoustic Engineering and Testing Technology, it manages the Unmanned Navigation Technology Research Center in the eastern coastal city of Ningbo. This center researches propulsion, navigation, and acoustics for unmanned underwater vehicles, the kind of research that needs the hydrophones, sonobuoys, sonars, and AUVs that Qin pled guilty to illegally procuring.

Russia ride hailing app hacking
Image for Representation

Charges made by the Justice Department involve Qin’s co-conspirator at NWPU, a professor and maritime information processing expert named Yang. His lab goes by a second, decidedly more military name: the Key Lab of Torpedo Guidance Technology. This lab is said to be jointly run by NWPU and the 705 Institute of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC).

The CSSC is China’s largest shipbuilding conglomerate and builder of all of its warships; its 705 Institute is the country’s premier institution for torpedo research and development. The institute’s research underpins all of the torpedoes currently in service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy, including its most advanced, the Yu-6, allegedly based on the design of the American Mark 48 ADCAP.

China Fujian aircraft warship
China’s Fujian Aircraft Carrier

American analysts also suspect China has stolen information associated with the F-35 fighter and built its J-31 (/topic/j-31) stealth fighter. It has done the same in UAV/Drone technologies, night vision technology, and armored vehicles technology.

US “Failed To Protect Its Military Technology”

It is against this background that McCaul says that “our export control system has failed to protect US technologies from fueling the rise of our adversaries’ militaries and surveillance regimes. The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) within the Department of Commerce oversees a system that keeps very little technology away from the PRC.”

Pointing out how the BIS has one of the most critical national security jobs within the US government as it can stop the transfer of US technology to adversaries like China, McCaul says he is disappointed with it.

“A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) study found that of the roughly $125 billion in US exports to China in 2020, BIS required licenses for 2.1 percent of exports. Alarmingly, 99% of controlled technologies went to China without a license. This raises the question – why is the BIS failing at its job, and how can we make it the effective agency it needs to be?” he questions. “BIS can no longer look the other way or rubber stamp licenses when American companies transfer sensitive technology to the PRC. The times have changed, and BIS needs to step up,” he suggests.

McCaul and his Republican colleagues have singled out how the Biden Administration’s decision to terminate Trump-era anti-espionage initiatives has helped China.

It is to be noted that the Trump Administration had formulated what was called “The China Initiative,” which was an anti-espionage program headed by the Justice Department. It was supposed to root out and prevent China from stealing American research and technology. But the Biden Administration terminated the program in February this year, citing concerns of “racial discrimination against Asians.”

McCaul is now sanguine that a Republican-controlled Congress will do much better to hold China accountable.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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