The Official Opposition called on the federal government Monday to ban research partnerships with Chinese military scientists and issue a ministerial order to advise provinces and Canadian universities to do the same.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong accused Ottawa of being “completely asleep at the switch” when it comes to protecting national security and intellectual property, after The Globe and Mail reported that 50 Canadian universities have conducted extensive research with China’s military since 2005.
The Globe reported Monday that the joint projects with China’s National University of Defence Technology (NUDT) included research on topics such as quantum cryptography, photonics and space science. Some of the Chinese military scientists who were involved are experts in missile performance and guidance systems, mobile robotics and automated surveillance.
In the past five years, academics at 10 of Canada’s leading universities published 240 joint papers with NUDT, which reports directly to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission and is the prime research institution for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“The Trudeau government needs to ban the funding of research partnerships with Beijing’s military by issuing a ministerial policy directive to Canada’s granting councils,” Mr. Chong told The Globe. “The Trudeau government also needs to provide clear direction to provinces and universities advising against these partnerships.”
He noted that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has publicly warned that Beijing is threatening Canada’s national security and intellectual property in five sensitive areas of research and development, including quantum theory, photonics and artificial intelligence.
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Despite these warnings, Mr. Chong noted, the government allowed Chinese military scientists access to Canada’s top-secret infectious microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg, and awarded a company owned by a Chinese state-owned enterprise a contract to supply the RCMP with telecom equipment.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino did not directly answer a question Monday about whether the government would order a ban on joint research between PLA scientists and academics at Canadian universities. Instead, he noted that the federal government has brought in some restrictions on research with foreign academics.
“We have put in an array of measures to screen not only individuals who are coming to study in academia in Canada, but as well to ensure we are screening investments that are funded by the research and academic sector,” the minister said. “I want to underline that we are eyes wide open when it comes to the threats and risks that are posed by foreign interference.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said open and collaborative research is fine in principle, but not when it puts national security at risk. “Wherever there is a security concern and there is a national security impact then we should make decisions to protect our national security and Canadian safety and security,” he told reporters.
Canadian high-tech billionaire Jim Balsillie, co-founder of the Council of Canadian Innovators and former chair and chief executive of Research in Motion, now known as BlackBerry, said it is incumbent upon the federal government to lay out clear rules against academic research with China’s military.
“It’s been years of ineptitude on this file, and we are at the point where we should question these actors’ commitment to our national security and economy,” he said. “While our Five Eyes partners have developed real rules, our institutions and government departments think internal finger pointing is a strategy.” (The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance that includes Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.)
Along with public Canadian universities, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), a federal funding agency, has been contributing to projects conducted with Chinese military scientists.
In 2021, Ottawa introduced tougher guidelines for NSERC. Researchers applying for NSERC grants now have to complete security risk assessments. Any project assessed to be “higher risk” would undergo a national-security review by Canadian security agencies and a team of scientists. If judged to be too high risk, the research would not receive federal funding.
But that hasn’t deterred Canadian universities from collaborating with China. Despite the new security rules, none of the 10 universities involved in the most projects with NUDT would, when asked by The Globe, commit to barring their academics from doing further research with the Chinese military university.
Conservative MP Rick Perkins said he fears some of the artificial intelligence research will be used by China against its Uyghur Muslim minority in the country’s Xinjiang province.
Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and a former national security analyst, said it’s unclear who is responsible for ensuring academic research is not helping foreign rivals. “You can put all these regulations in place but unless we know who is responsible, we have a couple of missing pieces in this equation,” she said.