In 2021, both the ‘father of the Pakistani atomic bomb’, Abdul Qadeer Khan, and the Dutch colleague, Frits Veerman, who caught him involved in espionage activities in the 1970s, died. Both their employers and the Homeland Security Service (predecessor of the AIVD) did not want to hear anything about Veerman’s suspicions that Khan stole ultracentrifuge technology in the Netherlands, Dirk van Delft convincingly argues in his book. nuclear fuel† First, Khan made his homeland geopolitically burp-free. Countries would be mad to act militarily against a nuclear power. Khan then sold the technology to North Korea and Iran.
While the Pakistani bomb is mainly a problem for India, Europe has a major strategic problem with the rapid military rise of China. Here too, the diffusion of technology plays an important role. Beijing wants to catch up with European technology in military technology – governments, companies and universities here must prevent that.
China’s leader Xi Jinping sees technology as “the core of the ability to wage war”. By 2049, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army must be a “leading” military force in the world, able to fight and win wars. Xi wants to be in line with Made in China 2025-strategy continue to make use of foreign knowledge and expertise.
A car with three wheels
China’s military modernization is impressive, moving forward at lightning speed, but it is also far from complete. Near its own coast, the power of the People’s Liberation Army is unparalleled, in the extremities of the South China Sea potent and far-from-home yet modest. In that first place, China can probably win important battles against the US. The result: US-Japanese-Australian intervention to repel an attack on Taiwan is becoming increasingly difficult.
Also read this opinion piece: Suppose China attacks Taiwan. What do we do then?
China developed its military might with the help of knowledge and technology from European companies and universities. Engine technology in China’s state-of-the-art destroyers is of German manufacture. China partly obtained the means to reclaim militarized islands in the South China Sea from European dredgers, Ko Colijn stated. NRC† TU Delft student publication Delta discovered that this university, mainly the department of aerospace engineering, collaborates with four leading universities for military technology development in China. MIVD boss Swillens warned that eighty students from China who do their PhD in the Netherlands can be traced directly to the defense sector of the People’s Liberation Army.
At the same time, Beijing is trying to fill military technology gaps, such as the lack of first-class jet fighters and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. These backlogs now limit China’s ability to invade the island republic of Taiwan. Xi can also barely use his fleet to intimidate countries in the Indian Ocean or closer to Europe. The Chinese army can best be compared to a car with three wheels: 90 percent of the costs have been incurred, but the thing does not (yet) drive.
Technology changes war
To help China become a frontrunner, Xi is also looking to the warfare of the future. Artificial intelligence, photonics, big data, robotics and autonomous systems, semiconductors, quantum computers, 5G, 6G and biotechnology will upgrade weapon classes and enable new weapon systems such as unmanned drones and electronic weapons including lasers. Together with a growing multitude of sensors, these technologies are changing war forever.
Also read this opinion piece: Militarily active against China and earning money from dredging: unbelievable
Datenna, a company specialized in Chinese investments, shows that (state) companies are busy looking for the fourth wheel in Europe. The resources: investments and joint venture constructions. A military drone manufacturer in Italy, a laser producer in Sweden and a Spanish aerospace company were acquired by parties with close ties to the defense apparatus. These fields ‘cover more than half of the knowledge collaborations with China’, said D66 party chairman Jan Paternotte during a round table meeting on sensitive technologies in the House of Representatives.
Three ministers argued in January that ‘self-regulation’ for universities is insufficient. Therefore, an ‘assessment framework’ for universities will come into effect in 2023 to prevent unwanted technology transfer in areas where ‘risks to national security are greatest’. There will also be an ‘investment test’, a means to test company takeovers by parties from outside the EU.
Unwanted technology transfer
Useful measures that can succeed. But then more is needed: the government must introduce a reporting obligation for universities and companies that collaborate with Chinese parties in high-risk areas. This allows the government to determine whether incidents are the tip of the iceberg or the iceberg itself. Furthermore, the term ‘risk areas’ must also be defined by investment and defense analysts. They can analyze the sectors and forms of cooperation in which unwanted knowledge transfer takes place, as well as identify the military technologies that China needs. Finally, a government body, for example the National Security Council announced in the coalition agreement, must be given the right to block collaborations with China in high-risk areas. In this way, the government can combat unwanted technology transfer in a targeted manner and ensure that broader cooperation is not disrupted.
A new geopolitical era requires new measures. As China’s pressure on Taiwan grows, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues. North Korea continues to test missiles. Powers are trying to stop Iran from taking the last steps towards the bomb. Democracies in Asia and Europe and US allies in the Middle East are competing this decade for scarcer US military resources and attention to deter China, North Korea, Russia and Iran. In 2022, the Netherlands cannot afford a new Khan affair.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 16 March 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 16, 2022