Shawn Barber is a Washington-based former foreign service officer and Canadian ambassador. Until June of last year, he was head of the Economic Security Task Force for Public Safety Canada.
It seems like the prying eyes of the Chinese government are everywhere these days. Here in the U.S. capital, lawmakers were stunned this past week at the sight of a Chinese surveillance balloon crossing over some of America’s most strategic real estate.
A few days earlier, decision-makers in Ottawa woke up to revelations of just how entangled some Canadian universities and researchers are with the Chinese military. According to reporting by The Globe and Mail, researchers at 50 Canadian universities have been working on projects with scientists connected to China’s defence sector for the past two decades.
The audacious Chinese effort to get a few close-up photos of missile silos in Montana came to a Top Gun end last weekend, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. The rockets’ red glare, the balloon bursting in air, and it was over. But Canada’s problem won’t have quite the same Hollywood ending.
A landmark study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2018 titled Picking Flowers, Making Honey painted a startling portrait of the deep links between the Chinese military-industrial complex and universities in the West.
It estimated that in 2017, Canada ranked third behind the U.S. and Britain for the highest number of university research partnerships with the Chinese military. The University of Waterloo, McGill University and the University of Toronto were listed among the top 10 foreign institutions favoured by the People’s Liberation Army.
The concern with these research partnerships is more than academic. They play a key role in the “military-civil fusion” strategy adopted under Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014. Its main objective is to ensure that new scientific and technological innovations in the civilian and commercial realms are made available and integrated into China’s military and intelligence capabilities. These include new technologies and know-how that can be acquired, diverted or stolen from foreign sources.
Within Canada’s national-security community, the loss of sensitive intellectual property to hostile actors such as China has long been acknowledged as a serious threat. But until recently, nothing meaningful had been done about it. That has started to change.
There are several factors that have roused the government out of its complacency. Perhaps the most important was the detection during the early stages of the pandemic of a serious attempt by foreign actors to steal sensitive COVID-related intellectual property. This incident drove home to senior officials the urgent need to put in place new safeguards to better protect our sensitive intellectual property as the Americans, British and Australians had done. And we did.
In July, 2021, the federal government released a set of National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships, designed to “integrate national security considerations into the development, evaluation and funding of research partnerships.”
These guidelines identify sensitive research areas of interest to foreign governments and militaries, and compliance is now mandatory in applications for federal funding to support partnerships in these designated areas. Funding requests deemed sensitive must now undergo a risk assessment by federal security agencies.
Secondly, Ottawa has put new resources on the table. The 2022 federal budget provided $159-million over five years to support the implementation of new security guidelines at universities, and to create a Research Security Centre at the department of public safety.
While this is a big step forward, we’ve left the door open to research partnerships that don’t involve federal grant money – these remain beyond the mandatory review process, and this is where the provinces come in.
Provincial governments need to step up and require universities under their jurisdiction to be more transparent and disclose the details of all research activities they undertake with foreign partners. This would pave the way for greater information sharing between the provinces and Ottawa, helping to close this potential gap in security and ensuring that threats don’t go undetected.
We also need to help our researchers better understand what specific technologies we’re most concerned about. The list of sensitive technologies referred to in the National Security Guidelines includes categories as broad as “energy generation” and “medical technology.”
This can impose a compliance burden in cases where there is no conceivable national-security risk. The current approach uses a sledgehammer when what we need is a scalpel. A more targeted, precise list that captures only the most sensitive technologies is the answer.
As the revelations from last week can attest, we are not yet where we need to be on research security. But it is also true that with these recent changes, and with more yet to come, Canada’s research sector is steadily becoming a much harder place to do business for those who are not our friends.