Imperial College will close two major research centres sponsored by Chinese aerospace and defence companies amid a crackdown on academic collaborations with China.
The Avic Centre for Structural Design and Manufacturing is a long-running partnership with China’s leading civilian and military aviation supplier, which has provided more than £6m to research cutting-edge aerospace materials. The second centre is run jointly with Biam, a subsidiary of another state-owned aerospace and defence company, which has contributed £4.5m for projects on high-performance batteries, jet engine components and impact-resistant aircraft windshields. The centres’ stated goals are to advance civilian aerospace technologies, but critics have repeatedly warned that the research could also advance China’s military ambitions.
Now Imperial has confirmed the two centres will be shut by the end of the year after the rejection of two licence applications to the government’s Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU), which oversees the sharing of sensitive research with international partners. The closures follow a warning in July by the heads of MI5 and the FBI of the espionage threat posed by China to UK universities, and highlight the government’s hardening attitude on the issue.
“You can say with a high degree of confidence that this decision has been taken because the government is of the view that continuing licensing would enable the military development in China, which is viewed as a threat to security,” said Sam Armstrong, director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society thinktank. “The government has made it clear to universities that there is an overall shift in the weather such that these collaborations are no longer possible.”
When the centres were launched in 2012, the Conservative government was enthusiastic about such partnerships, and some universities – notably Imperial College and Manchester – accepted substantial funds from state-owned companies that supply the Chinese military with fighter jets, surveillance software and missiles. In 2015, the then chancellor, George Osborne, accompanied the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, on a tour of Manchester’s graphene institute during a state visit.
But as relations between China and the west have deteriorated, with concerns over human rights in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region, behind the scenes there has been a crackdown on academic partnerships involving “dual-use” technologies that have benign civilian uses, but also potential military applications.
In addition to the two centres due to shut at Imperial, another five collaborations have been quietly terminated in the past three years – all but one of those in the UK highlighted as “high risk” in a 2019 analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). This includes facilities at Imperial and Manchester sponsored by the Chinese missile manufacturer Calt, whose parent company is reported to have supplied drones deployed in the Xinjiang region. The government’s Export Control Unit has rejected three licence applications from Imperial and five from Manchester linked to China collaborations since 2018.
“The fact these two [latest Imperial] facilities have been closed down is not enormously surprising,” Armstrong said. “It’s difficult to see how you can partner with Avic without furthering the aims of the Chinese military.”
Charles Parton, a China expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said that the UK had been “sleepwalking” into partnerships that posed a threat to national interests. “Finally we’ve woken up and are now beginning to get an idea of what’s going on,” he said. “The distinction is narrowing between what is a civilian and military use. We really shouldn’t be helping a hostile power.
“The government is trying to set out the boundaries of what sorts of collaborations are acceptable,” he added. “We should collaborate but just not on anything that might have a military use or raise human rights concerns.”
An Imperial College London spokesperson said: “Imperial’s research is open and routinely published in leading international journals and we conduct no classified research. All partnerships and collaborations undergo thorough scrutiny and are regularly reviewed, working closely and regularly with the appropriate government departments, and in line with our commitments to UK national security.”