At a recent hearing, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin drew parallels with the Cold War to suggest that China’s technological ambitions and adversarial behavior toward the U.S. warrant considering clamping down on the number of Chinese graduate students admitted into the country, among other actions.
Last month, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to consider strategies for stemming the flow of military-relevant technology and expertise to other nations, particularly China. The committee was especially interested in what might constitute a comprehensive or “whole-of-government” policy response to the problem.
Witnesses from the government’s defense and intelligence communities outlined a variety of legal and illegal means that the Chinese government uses to acquire U.S. technology and expertise. Representing the latest in a series of hearings at which Trump administration officials and some congressional leaders have aired concerns about China’s expansive R&D strategy, it offered perhaps the bluntest articulation to date of the potential implications for U.S.-China relations.
Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin framed the situation in particularly stark terms, drawing parallels with the Cold War to suggest the U.S. should consider fundamentally altering its posture toward China’s academic and business communities.
Committee seeks 'whole-of-government' strategy
Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-TX) opened the hearing by citing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ assessment that America’s competitive edge has “eroded in every domain of warfare.” Thornberry said the U.S. is partly to blame due to self-inflicted actions that have kept military budgets constrained, but he also attributed the erosion to “adversaries and competitors obtaining American technology and intellectual property by legal and often illegal means.”
Thornberry quoted several findings of a recent Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) report titled “China’s Technology Transfer Strategy: How Chinese Investments in Emerging Technology Enable a Strategic Competitor to Access the Crown Jewels of U.S. Innovation.” He read off a list of methods the report says China uses to obtain U.S. technology and expertise, ranging from industrial espionage and cyber theft to legal avenues such as Chinese nationals’ extensive participation in U.S. STEM graduate programs. “Most alarming,” Thornberry remarked,
DIUx found that ‘the U.S. does not have a comprehensive policy or the tools to address this massive technology transfer to China [and] does not have a holistic view of how fast this technology transfer is occurring, the level of Chinese investment in U.S. technology, or what technologies we should be protecting.’
Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-WA) agreed the U.S. lacks a “strategy to counter what is happening,” but also stressed that the U.S. should not expect to maintain the technological dominance it enjoyed in the wake of World War II.
“That left us in a very, very strong position for several decades, but that was highly unusual. So even if China wasn't doing all this nefarious stuff,” Smith said, “we're going to have to compete.” He argued that the U.S. must leverage its alliances with other nations and embrace industrial policy to keep ahead.
Thornberry said the hearing would help inform the committee’s deliberations on this year’s pending National Defense Authorization Act. Both versions of the bill contain provisions aimed at curbing the acquisition of U.S. technology by China and other nations. Among them, the Senate bill would overhaul export control and foreign investment review mechanisms to better safeguard important emerging technologies.
Meanwhile, the House bill would allow DOD to deny funding to researchers who have participated in foreign talent recruitment programs operated by certain nations, such as China’s Thousand Talents program. It would also direct the president to submit to Congress a whole-of-government strategy with respect to China that includes consideration of items such as the “use of intelligence networks to exploit open research and development.”
DOD R&D chief contrasts current US-China posture with Cold War stance against Soviets
The witnesses submitted a joint statement stressing that DOD’s technological base faces “unprecedented” threats. In addition to cyber theft, it says DOD is “seeing the technology transfer threat manifest through numerous non-traditional methods, including talent recruitment, academic collaboration, and supply chain access.”
Describing the overarching aim of their testimony, Griffin said, “We appear before you to discuss the very real Chinese adversarial behavior to which you have referred. And this is not about the threat of such behavior; this is real behavior.”
“We are here, in part, to recognize that this is a whole-of-government, indeed, a whole-of-society problem,” he added.
While Griffin said he strongly believes in the value of international alliances and exchanges, he argued China must be viewed as an adversary because of the “breadth and depth of Chinese malfeasance” toward the U.S., citing intellectual property theft as an example. He contrasted the past U.S. stance toward the Soviet Union with its present posture toward China, remarking, “During the Cold War, there was a whole-of-nation policy such that the idea of doing a commercial deal with the Soviet Union were words that didn't fit in one sentence. We don't have such policies today.”
Among other actions, he suggested the U.S. ought to consider restricting the number of Chinese STEM graduate students admitted into the country, saying:
We as a nation have choices. Do we wish to admit, as we have today, 30,000 Chinese Ph.D. students in STEM areas? Do we wish to do that? Do we think the benefits outweigh the gains [sic]? There is not a national decision in that regard as there was when we were competing against the Soviet Union. We didn't do those things.
It's not for me to say whether we should or should not. I'm trying to put on the table that these apparently isolated decisions in fact when taken together comprise a whole-of-government strategy that we do not have.
Underpinning his outlook, Griffin explained, is a conviction that for the past 25 years the U.S. wrongly believed that the "era of great power competition” had ended.
The administration has already implemented new visa screening measures that allow U.S. consular officials to restrict the duration of visas granted to Chinese citizens studying in certain “sensitive” fields. Meanwhile, U.S. university associations and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have expressed alarm about the damage that restricting visas for Chinese students and scholars could inflict on international scientific collaboration and the U.S. innovation system itself.
In testimony submitted to a separate hearing last month on security risks posed by Chinese students, associations representing all major U.S. research universities argued the U.S. must remain a welcoming country for international scholars and suggested actions to address concerns about espionage and foreign talent recruitment efforts. Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus also criticized the framing of that hearing, arguing it painted all Chinese students and scholars as potential spies and could engender discrimination against both Chinese nationals and Chinese Americans.
Concerns aired about US-China research collaborations
In calling for a comprehensive policy to counter technology transfer to China, the witnesses pointed not only to the scale of Chinese activities but also their variety. Anthony Schinella, a witness representing the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the Chinese government is pursuing a comprehensive strategy encompassing increased domestic investments in science and technology infrastructure, acquisition of technology companies, joint business ventures, cyber espionage, and research collaborations with universities and national laboratories, among other methods.
Elaborating on U.S. intelligence agencies’ concerns about academic partnerships, Schinella said, “Foreign governments often use every means at their disposal to secure an advantage in technological areas, and their exploitation of academics and researchers at U.S. colleges, national laboratories, and other institutions is one of those means.” He added that China in particular “actively seeks partnerships with government laboratories to learn about and acquire specific technology and the soft skills necessary to run such facilities. China also uses collaborations and relationships with universities to acquire specific research and access to high-end research equipment.”
Schinella also said China operates several talent recruitment programs that are “specifically focused on recruiting global experts who can facilitate the transfer of foreign technology, intellectual property, and know-how to advance China's science, technology, and military modernization goals.”
Citing concerns about such efforts, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) asked Schinella whether the U.S. should prevent Chinese students from participating in Ph.D. programs. Schinella replied it is not within his purview to weigh in on the subject.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) also aired concerns about how companies linked to the Chinese government have established research partnerships with U.S. universities. Banks noted that he and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) spearheaded a June 19 letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her to investigate partnerships that the Chinese technology company Huawei has formed with over 50 universities. In reaction to the letter, Huawei’s chairman criticized Banks and Rubio as being “closed-minded and ill-informed.”
Both Griffin and Eric Chewning, deputy assistant under secretary of defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy, affirmed that DOD is also concerned about such collaborations. Chewning said DOD is “reviewing the contract language associated with those research projects” and is searching for a broader solution.
“We have an open innovation model, and we have an adversary that is within that model and operates a closed model on their own side. We need to experiment to find what the structural fix is for that without breaking what makes our system work the best in the world,” he said.