Transfer of technology with China: International security experts are sounding the alarm

With China’s Quest for Foreign Technology, Beyond Espionage, a group of sixteen experts on China deliver a comprehensive study of the security challenges ahead, clearly demonstrating what to expect from Chinese ambitions in the future if Western democracies do not revisit their approach to intellectual property, academic exchange, research cooperation and joint ventures.

This book constitutes a must read not only for anyone involved in the security community but also for any interested reader looking for an answer to the following question: How does the CCP plan and successfully implement licit, illicit and gray zone transfer of technology?

William C. Hannas is one of the leading China experts in the US and can look back at a long career at the Central Intelligence Agency, his co-editor, Hong Kong born Didi Kirsten Tatlow has been reporting on and from China for over two decades. She is considered a leading expert on China in Germany. Both Chinese speakers are now working respectively in academia in Washington D.C. and in think tanks in Prague and Berlin. They have gathered a group of experts around a project aiming at opening the eyes of the readers as to what to expect from the Chinese dictatorship.

In the last decade, it has become clear that beside establishing itself as the El dorado for cheap manufacturing of Western products, China was also synonymous of intellectual property theft, blatant plagiarism and poorly manufactured counterfeits.  In fact, violation of intellectual property and theft of patents have become the rule where the Chinese dictatorship has been unable to innovate due to the oppressive nature of its political system.

But through which practice does this repressive regime compensate its failure to innovate when it comes to highly advanced modern technologies? The present apolitical and objective study gives answers that should shake up decision making circles. It should also provide advice, showing a way out of our self-inflicted Western conundrum.

The authors repeatedly underline that the hemorrhaging of national technology assets needs to be detected early and prevented to protect our democracies. Both authors also insist on the fact that cooperation could be positive if China were held to strict rules, making the CCP comply with certain standards, within a clear policy of partnership based on a thorough scrutiny of technology transfers outside of the intelligence community at a first stage.

At a second stage, the authors advocate for a close and swift exchange of information at government level between all agencies, leaving the coordination under the umbrella of the Director of National Intelligence.

In this context the authors argue that it is essential to keep a multilateral approach to countering abusive transfer of technology. A coordination among allies is the way to follow, they suggest.

A mechanism of sanctions and penalties should be put in place in case of contractual violation, thus immediately banning elements having attempted to take advantage of technology partnerships in the past. Both authors also argue that a generous but targeted policy of academic exchanges ought to be tailored on the needs of the host country. This policy should automatically entail an invitation for the researchers to stay in their new host countries. This, the authors assure, is the key to mutual growth and it can only occur in the framework of extremely strict control mechanisms.

That this is not happening is explained and scrupulously detailed by Anna B. Puglisi in the Chapter titled the Myth of the stateless global society.

The chapter on Targeting defense technologies, by James Mulvenon and Chenny Zhang should give sleepless nights to many people on the Hill as well as in European governments. Indeed, the direct exploitation for espionage has dire consequences for the United States and its allies.

Especially the very sobering chapter on transfer of technology in Europe should shed a new light onto a partnership that has been idealized in the past by both European and Chinese authorities. For instance, the latest developments in the allegedly mutually beneficial partnership between Germany and China, that is not one, is posing a threat to the domestic security of the country Tatlow, Feldwisch-Drentrup and Fedasiuk conclude. The modus operandi on German soil is similar to what has been detected in other European countries. It is untransparent at first glance, it encompasses a myriad of professional and cultural associations, a web of networks of scholars, students, researchers all constituting a pipeline for transfer of technology, be it legally, illegally or gray zone. This leaves already countless victims of Chinese espionage behind, unprotected by authorities who fail to put the puzzle pieces together because the chain of actors involved in intelligence gathering is so opaque. The situation is getting more serious as the bilateral economic relationship intensifies. Yet the German government appears to be ignoring these warnings and persists in prioritizing short term economic interests before consideration of national security. A form of political autism that endangers not only the Federal Republic Germany but its allies, too.

William C. Hannas, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Eds, China’s Quest for Foreign Technology, Beyond Espionage, Routledge, London, New York, 2020, 347 p.

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