Only reporting obligation in collaborations with China will make knowledge security possible


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Apr 6, 2022 † Now that the National Guideline for Knowledge Security and the Knowledge Security Desk have been launched, Minister Dijkgraaf is calling on university administrators to get a complete picture of the collaborations within their institute. All these efforts will not prevent unwanted knowledge transfer as long as there is no obligation to report, a strategic definition of ‘risk areas’ and specialist control from the government, writes Joris Teer of the Hague Center for Strategic Studies.






A Chinese and an American soldier shake hands. Image: D. Myles Cullen (CC0 1.0)


At the end of January, Minister Dijkgraaf and the universities launched the Knowledge Security Desk and the National Guide to Knowledge Security. These instruments should help knowledge institutions to map out and adapt knowledge-intensive collaborations with countries such as China, Iran and Russia. The ball is now in the institutions’ court, the minister wrote to the board chairmen.

“The guideline and the counter are important instruments that help ensure that you, as the director of a knowledge institution, can take your responsibility and take the necessary measures to safeguard knowledge security, assisted by the national government,” said the minister. “Now it is important that the content of the guideline is implemented within all knowledge institutions. Also within your institution.”

Portfolio holder and knowledge safety advisory team per institution

In addition to appointing a knowledge safety portfolio holder at board level and setting up a knowledge safety advisory team, board members must carry out or update a knowledge safety risk analysis in the short term, Dijkgraaf writes. This should provide a complete picture of the particularly valuable knowledge domains, risks and vulnerabilities within institutions. “Agreements in which academic core values ​​are insufficiently safeguarded and/or entail (major) risks for national security should be reviewed or, if that is not possible, dissolved.”

Directors must report these risk analyzes to the Supervisory Boards shortly after the summer, with which Dijkgraaf himself will hold talks at the end of this year. On that basis, he will inform the House of Representatives. There are also many concerns and questions with regard to knowledge security, as are several ministries. For example, the ministers Dijkgraaf (OCW), Yesilgöz-Zegerius (Justice and Security) and Adriaansens (Economic Affairs and Climate) want to introduce an assessment framework in 2023 to prevent unwanted knowledge and technology transfer within “the knowledge areas in which the risks to national security being the greatest”.

The VVD even wants a major clean-up to be carried out because the self-cleaning capacity of higher education institutions is insufficient. In addition, the party advocates the establishment of a public register in which foreign financing of public institutions must be listed.

Insufficient knowledge security with a view to China

However, all these measures and proposals will not have the desired effect as long as there is no reporting obligation, a strategic definition of ‘risk areas’ and specialist management from the government, writes Joris Teer of the Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS). an article on China’s military rise and European technology. In it he outlines the military-technological needs of China and the way in which China tries to obtain high-quality knowledge that it lacks through joint ventures, business takeovers and scientific collaborations.

Secretary-General Xi described technology as “the core of the ability to wage war.”

“In 2022, China is still struggling with an important military-technological backlog. This should not be made up with the help of European knowledge and technology”, argues Teer. He fears, however, that the Netherlands and Europe have learned little from the affair with Abdul Qadir Khan, a Pakistani researcher who stole Dutch ultracentrifuge technology from Stork’s Amsterdam Physical-Dynamic Research Laboratory and thereby helped Pakistan and North Korea acquire nuclear weapons.

‘Concerning incidents’ raise concerns about knowledge security

In China, Europe finds a geopolitical adversary whose ambitions do not lie, Teer outlines. “The People’s Liberation Army should be fully modernized by 2035. By 2049, China must be a ‘leading’ military power in the world, able to fight and win wars.” Technology must be the key to turning China from a military-tech follower into a frontrunner in that field. “Secretary General Xi described technology as ‘the core of the capability to wage war’. China pays a lot of attention to the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, such as artificial intelligence.”

At the same time, China is grappling with “fundamental military-tech backlogs” in aviation and anti-submarine warfare, Teer said. To prevent these gaps from being filled with undesired knowledge transferred via Western companies and knowledge institutions, European governments must pursue an active policy in this regard. “A series of worrying incidents” suggests that there is still a lot of work to be done.

China also likes to shop in the Netherlands

Teer outlines how China makes use of the openness that characterized the economic and technological world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Engine technology in China’s state-of-the-art destroyers is German-made. Beijing’s hypersonic missiles have been tested in a machine that contains American chips.”

In addition, Teer cites the example of a Chinese professor at the University of Copenhagen who, together with a laboratory of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, conducted brain research involving open exposure to extreme heights. “The goal: to develop biotechnology (in this case drugs) to prevent brain damage at high altitudes. Winning a war in the Himalayas, where China fought a deadly mini-conflict with India in the summer of 2020, is a key priority of the People’s Liberation Army.”

The Chinese also like to shop in the Netherlands. Teer refers to the discovery of university magazine Delta that TU Delft is collaborating with four of the seven leading Chinese universities in the field of military technology development in the field of aerospace engineering, precisely a domain in which China lacks knowledge. The boss of the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) also reported in February of this year that the MIVD had warned eighteen months earlier that eighty Chinese PhD students in the Netherlands can be traced directly to the Chinese defense sector.

On the basis of Chinese company takeovers or set-up joint ventures Teer shows how China also works very specifically in the commercial sector to make up for military-technological deficiencies. At the same time, China knows that in “the fourth industrial revolution in the defense domain, in which the US has so far dominated, the cards will be shuffled again,” said HCSS researcher. “Artificial intelligence, photonics, big data, robotics and autonomous systems, semiconductors, quantum computers, 5G, 6G and biotechnology are the technologies that fundamentally upgrade existing weapon classes and enable new weapon systems.”

Proposed measures fall short to safeguard knowledge security

Will the Knowledge Security Desk, the National Guide to Knowledge Security, the major clean-up at universities, the mandatory listing of foreign funding in a public register and various initiatives from the European Union put an end to the unwanted transfer of knowledge? Not as long as a number of fundamental measures are lacking, writes Teer.

The definition of ‘risk areas’ should be based on the military-technological backwardness of geopolitical rivals such as China.

Firstly, Dutch companies and knowledge institutions should be obliged to report collaborations with China to the government. If unwanted knowledge transfer now comes to light, it is always on an incidental basis, which makes it unclear whether this unwanted knowledge transfer is the tip of the iceberg or the iceberg itself, writes Teer. “There is no comprehensive overview of collaborations currently taking place with China within risk areas.”

Give a mandate to central government body to block scientific collaboration

With this he immediately points out the next requirement; the definition of ‘risk areas’ should be based on the military-technological backwardness of geopolitical rivals such as China, argues Teer. “Investment screening experts and security and defense analysts can map out the whole picture of technologies China is looking for. (…) In addition, security analysts can determine how the threat assessment for the Netherlands will change if China catches up with specific military-technological backlogs.”

Third, a “specialized and central government body with a vision of the national interest” should be mandated to block corporate takeovers as well as commercial and scientific collaborations. Teer sees such a role for the National Security Council announced in the coalition agreement. “From its central position, this council can give substance to a well-balanced vision of national and European interests based on, among other things, national risk analyses.”

If these are properly translated into, for example, the National Guide to Knowledge Security, the international character of university life and the open economy can be preserved as much as possible, says Teer.

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