Against a backdrop of growing hostility between China and the United States, Japan is beefing up measures to protect university scientific research from foreign espionage. Experts say this also reflects Tokyo’s geopolitical interests in line with the US-Japan security partnership signed in 1960.
A news report by Japan’s Kyodo News agency on 30 November indicated 45 national, private and public universities in Japan had agreements on academic or student exchange programmes with seven universities in China which have ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and may involve technology relating to military use.
Some of the universities in China are on the US embargo list such as Beihang University (formerly Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics) in Beijing, Harbin Engineering University and Harbin Institute of Technology.
While some Japanese universities, including Chiba Institute of Technology, have discontinued joint research with Chinese military-linked institutions, Japan’s Hokkaido University and Osaka University, which conduct joint research with PLA-linked counterparts on nanotechnology and nuclear research respectively, will continue with the programme, according to Kyodo.
The Japanese government maintains it is for universities to manage their links with universities in China. However, it is stepping up monitoring and support for universities.
“Monitoring research collaboration in universities and the export of academic data that can be used for military purposes in China in particular, is becoming increasingly important for the government,“ said Masatoshi Shimotsuka, an official in the research and development section at the Education Ministry.
A step in this direction is a new JPY220 million (US$2.1 million) budget request from the foreign ministry to “strengthen scrutiny of visa applications with a view to preventing technology theft” from 2021.
Under the strategy, universities and research organisations will be provided with support to strengthen security, including access to sensitive and confidential technological information.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry also unveiled a new budget of JPY1.87 billion (US$18 million) from April this year to support universities and small companies to establish stricter frameworks for managing trade secrets.
In July Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper reported that a special committee comprised of academics was set up by the government to oversee cases of suspected leaking of intellectual property to a foreign country as a consequence of foreign funding.
Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, in its NIDS China Security Report 2021 published on 13 November, warned that the Chinese military is aiming to use cutting-edge technologies such as private sector-developed artificial intelligence to enhance its offensive capability in domains such as cyberspace and outer space.
Other high-risk research areas identified by the government are materials science, semiconductor technology, robotics and biotechnology that can be used for the development of weapons. Fifth generation (5G) wireless network technology that can be repurposed for cyberattacks is also included.
“Protecting Japan’s national interests is becoming important in a changing environment. The export of high-level scientific university research to countries that pose a threat is a big part of this,” said Masahiko Hosokawa, visiting business professor at Meisei Unversity in Tokyo.
Hosokawa, a former industry ministry official, is a leading advocate for universities to improve their efforts to protect against research espionage, including for dual-use technologies that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.
Hosokawa believes Japan must be more vigilant of the security threat posed by China. He told University World News that Japanese universities lag behind the United States, Britain and Australia in taking steps against research espionage and warned that Japan’s lax attitude would mean universities and companies in those countries may avoid working with Japanese counterparts.
“They [foreign universities] would be sensitive to the risk of the outflow of their technology through leaks from Japan,” he said.
Geopolitical tensions, including the effects of US-China trade and technology tensions, are leading to greater alignment of Japanese policies with its allies.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took office in October, faces heightened tension with China in the South China Sea. A hot issue is the disputed Senkaku islands, claimed by both countries, as well as new cases of Japan Coast Guard vessels grappling with Chinese counterparts over fishing rights in the area.
Yet, experts in Japan also point out that the pressure on Japanese universities to comply with security spying involves tackling a host of important challenges.
Chinese nationals, including doctoral students and faculty, top the international sector in Japanese higher education. Statistics released in 2019 by Japan Student Services Organization indicate that they comprise 60% of Japan’s 53,000 international postgraduate students and more than 22% of international faculty.
Futao Huang, professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, points out that a clampdown could have a major financial impact, especially on private universities that accept many international students.
“Restricting visas for Chinese students means more Japanese universities will have to depend on official funding or diversify their revenue by working with industry or businesses,” he said.
Riken, a major organisation promoting science and technology-focused global research, has signed memorandums of understanding with 36 countries, including with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, since 1982. Riken spokesperson Ichiro Suzuki said the new restrictions will not impact on ongoing exchanges with China as Riken has already established careful monitoring systems.
A crucial concern for Japan to meet the new restrictions is balancing economic interdependency with China. China, the world’s second largest economy, is the top recipient of investment by Japanese companies and importer of Japanese goods at JPY18 trillion in 2019, far more than United States imports from Japan at JPY8.6 trillion.
“Japanese academic exchanges with China rose linked to the expanding economic relations between the two countries,” explained Masanori Okada, professor in the law department at Waseda University. “Joint research programmes focusing on technology to promote manufacturing are the backbone of economic growth in Japan and China.”
Okada is one of six academics blocked from the independent advisory Science Council of Japan in October by Prime Minister Suga. The barred scholars are critical of security policies such as revising the Japanese peace Constitution and the state secrets protection law adopted by former conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
They have said the law goes against the public’s right to information as it allows officials and bureaucrats to withhold information produced during their employment if deemed a state secret at their own discretion.
US pressure on Japan is another concern for academics involved in research collaboration with China. Technology is an area of fierce competition between China and the US, and Japan’s advanced expertise is shared in joint projects with American companies.
Tohoku University, a national higher education institution, accepts around 1,000 foreign doctoral students annually for joint research. Chinese nationals comprise on average 50% or more.
According to Takahiko Sasaki, a professor at Tohoku University’s Institute for Materials Research, international students work with their Japanese counterparts developing, among other areas, nuclear and space technology.
“Joint research is crucial for university research. We have developed monitoring systems to safeguard the export of technology that can be used for military purposes,” he said.