The Washington Free Beacon has recently reported in quick succession that several prominent Ivy League universities are cooperating with China, posing a potential risk to U.S. national security and sparking opposition to the collaborations on campus.
The Free Beacon reported on March 10 that Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University School of Medicine have collaborated with institutions backed by the Chinese Communist Party military or the Chinese Communist Party.
The report noted that the Harvard School of Public health has established partnerships with seven Chinese universities to help promote reform of China’s health care system, yet six of the Chinese universities have “serious security risks” associated with the People’s Liberation Army, including Sichuan University, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Tsinghua University, which help develop defense technologies such as China’s nuclear program. Yale University School of Medicine is associated with Shenzhen and China.
Yale University School of Medicine has established partnerships with hospitals in Shenzhen and across China, and Yale has helped China build a database of biomedical data on 400,000 Chinese citizens. For its part, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Health is partnering with Peking Union Medical College, which is directly overseen by China’s National Health Care Commission.
The Free Beacon continued on March 15 with a report that the proposed joint degree program funded by China’s Ministry of Education, which would reportedly generate $1 million, by the associate dean of the School of Hotel Management at Cornell University, one of the Ivy League colleges, has caused an uproar and resistance by several professors who are concerned about Cornell’s ability to maintain academic independence in the face of Beijing‘s increased control over civil society They expressed deep concern about Cornell’s ability to maintain academic independence in the face of Beijing’s increased control over civil society.
In his first foreign policy address in office earlier this month, Secretary of State Blinken noted that Washington will compete with China when it should, cooperate when it can, and confront when it has to, but noted that in either form “we will have to engage China from a position of strength.”
So can the U.S. and China cooperate in the field of scientific research, how can they cooperate, and how should they vet the threats and implications of such cooperation for U.S. national security?
Policy analyst: “U.S. colleges and universities, do you really want to go down in history as collaborating with the Chinese Communist Party?”
Odegaard, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute
Liselotte Odgaard, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, argued that President Biden would not be overly suspicious of normal academic exchanges “between open universities and other research groups based on the assumption that these findings and data will eventually be published publicly,” Odgaard said.
The signal from the government, she said, “is that we shouldn’t judge all the Chinese people involved the same way. We should communicate with the Chinese and also engage in a national exchange with China to find areas where we can improve relations. In international competition, such exchanges should be limited to non-sensitive areas, of which health science may be one, and it would be unwise to bypass that. But on the point of national security, I don’t think the Biden Administration will make many concessions or changes.”
Arthur Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Quantum Coalition Project, shares this view. “National security is a priority in scientific and technical cooperation with China. Of course, we don’t have to delist all Chinese scientists working in the United States, but strict controls must be imposed on those studying here to ensure that they are indeed students and that they are studying and not engaging in potential espionage to obtain data or information useful to the Chinese Communist military.”
Hudson Institute Senior Fellow, Quantum League Program Director Herman
“I think our university leadership needs to be held accountable as well. We have seen Beijing’s crimes against religious minorities, dissidents and human rights violations in Hong Kong. Does the leadership at Harvard, Yale and Princeton really want to be seen in history as an enabler for Beijing to advance its agenda. We can ask the same question of American companies that work with China.”
Herman likened contemporary U.S.-China cooperation to U.S. cooperation with Nazi Germany during World War II. He called on U.S. companies and universities to look back in history, “The American universities that worked with Nazi Germany back then and the big companies, including IBM, although they thought at the Time that those were good collaborative projects from a business and scientific research perspective, they actually helped to promote the political and military agenda of Nazi Germany. Let’s put today in the context of history and think, 10 or 20 years from now, will we still consider these current U.S.-intermediate collaborations to be purely scientific and technological intellectual property? All of this present-day important knowledge could be used to undermine our national and economic security.”
Herman called for, “We must recognize that projects with China, whether it’s health care or quantum physics, or space research, or electronic technology, or clean energy, all of these areas need to be looked at with a new perspective and a gradual understanding of where our real interests lie, and to begin to act on them. Restricting China’s access to our key technologies must now be a top policy priority, and one of my goals is to use my research to remind the current administration of the priorities it should take.”
Science: “From nuclear security to artificial intelligence, scientific and technological advances require deepening international cooperation”
Naj Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, industrial systems engineering and international relations at the University of Southern California, argues the opposite. Meshkati told Voice of America, “Even at the height of the Cold War, the National Academy of Sciences maintained a number of scientific collaborations with the Soviet Union, and I don’t see why we can’t collaborate with China.” “I certainly don’t rule out the possibility that artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and all these new technologies could be used for military defense, but we shouldn’t fundamentally devalue the enormous benefits of cooperation with China for the advancement of human science and technology just because we have a competitive relationship in these areas.”
Meshkaty, professor of civil and environmental engineering, industrial systems engineering and international relations at the University of Southern California
Meshkaty specifically mentioned the recent 10th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan. A tri-appointed professor of engineering, medicine and public policy, Meshkaty is a member and technical advisor to the National Academy of Sciences-appointed Commission of Inquiry into the Fukushima nuclear accident, a panel whose purpose is to learn from the event and make U.S. nuclear power plants safer.
“We learned that the most critical lesson is the need to stop nuclear nationalism and isolationism. With the spread of populist, nationalist and anti-globalist forces, ensuring close cooperation between countries developing nuclear programs is critical today. The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose mission is to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear energy, should urge its member states to seek a balance between national sovereignty and international responsibility when operating nuclear power reactors on their territories. As Chernobyl and Fukushima have taught the world, the effects of radiation are not limited to national borders.”
“With Fukushima affecting all of Southeast Asia and radiation from Chernobyl in 1986 affecting all of Europe, the U.S. needs to work with and learn from the rest of the world on nuclear safety. Why wouldn’t Southeast Asian countries – South Korea, Japan, etc. – work with China and the United States? It’s a win-win situation.”
Meshkaty, who served as a science fellow and senior science and engineering adviser to Hillary Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state, has turned his experience in engineering diplomacy into a general studies course at USC designed to train the next generation of technical diplomats.
He asks students to choose an issue facing the world and the U.S. from a grand challenge issued by the National Academy of Engineering, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or from a list presented by the State Department on topics ranging from water diplomacy to virtual reality and artificial intelligence to weapons of mass destruction, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, nuclear energy, climate change, oceans and high seas, Food security, and emergency response to major coastal disasters in the Middle East, among others. The course has been a huge hit since it was offered in 2016.
Meshkaty said, “We can learn a lot from transnational, highly interdisciplinary modern engineering programs to bridge the divide between nations.” He believes U.S. and Chinese scientists can make a big difference in a number of areas, including climate change, drug development and renewable energy. “One of my best colleagues is the former dean of the College of Engineering at Peking University, Professor Dongxiao Zhang, who is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Before moving to China, he was my colleague next door at the University of Southern California. Our collaboration on nuclear security is a mutually beneficial collaboration between the U.S. and China.”
Another area often seen as a hotbed of U.S.-China competition is artificial intelligence. Meshkaty said, “We should learn the lesson on AI research and development that countries stopped dialogue and cooperation on nuclear technology development after World War II leading to bad outcomes. We should indeed stop the use of new technologies for military purposes and espionage, but more importantly, we should enhance the understanding of new technologies at the technical level. Artificial intelligence is turning our perceptions and lives upside down in every aspect of medicine, energy conservation, smart living, data analytics and more.”
“This is what we need to communicate to policymakers, and using political language alone is not going to solve the problem,” Meshkaty said.
Biden administration faces dilemma in standard-setting
Experts interviewed all said the key at this point is that the administration must develop a standard for vetting international cooperation, but they also acknowledged that whether cooperative projects pose a threat to national security will be difficult to define.
According to Odegaard, “The Biden administration will have a difficult time defining areas that can be safely opened up because China is overwhelming countries with its broad application of technology in so many areas. For example, China has worked very hard to secure research stations in several Arctic countries, but these polar scientific uses are dual, and can also be used for surveillance purposes or even the space race. Another example is China’s sonar-unmanned submarines claimed to be used for environmental research, but the seemingly calm seas are actually filled with information gathering and dissemination.”
“The U.S. has noted the Chinese government’s strategy for the use of scientific research and is concerned enough to develop a policy to deal with the issue. But the above examples illustrate the difficulty of defining clearly whether there is a security risk in scientific research cooperation, since ownership of the Arctic research station was acquired so that China could use this research for national security purposes.”
“The U.S. government and security agencies are already dealing with these issues, so I’m not sure the Biden administration will be as open to opening up to Chinese universities and research as some scientists advocate, because the security risks involved are so great that the U.S. may be putting itself at risk of losing its leadership position.”
Herman advocates a careful review of each research collaboration program. Such reviews and standards should be set “not just by government officials, but in cooperation with scientists, engineers and others who are familiar with the field, and should include analysts who understand what China is doing, what the Chinese Communist Party is up to, and the level of China’s own research in these areas.”
“I don’t think there is a comprehensive set of standards that apply to all areas of scientific and technical research. We have to look at it carefully, second by second, as if we were playing back a movie. That’s what I’ve been urging us and our allies in the field of quantum technology to do, to set standards with five eyes to understand what kind of knowledge, what kind of data, what kind of quantum applications can be allowed for collaborations and technologies, including China, and what scientific research projects should be on U.S. soil. I think there needs to be such an in-depth discussion and examination in all of these areas.”