New Zealand-designed light aircraft which once made headlines for breaching trade sanctions with North Korea have been converted into drones for the Chinese military.
The adaptation of the Pacific Aerospace P-750, famed for being able to take off from a 35m airstrip and carry more cargo than the weight of its airframe, into the unmanned P-720 is just one example of the risks of technology transfer to China cited by Canterbury University China expert Anne-Marie Brady.
Brady's research paper on links between New Zealand businesses and universities with Peoples Liberation Army institutions was presented to Parliament's justice select committee Thursday as part of wide-range hearings on foreign interference.
"The majority of New Zealand-China scientific partnerships are benign," Brady's paper begins.
"However, some New Zealand-China educational and industry linkages are with PLA [Peoples Liberation Army]-affiliated organisations and involve projects with military-end-use application."
The paper notes New Zealand's membership of Five Eyes and existing military research and manufacturing with, largely US, allies.
Rocket Lab's satellite delivery business has recently been reported to include US Defence customers.
Brady paper notes Hamilton-based Pacific Aerospace was part-acquired in 2014 by a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese industrial giant Beijing Automotive Industry Corporation (BAIC) that Brady says "specialises in making military vehicles and exports military vehicles to Iran and North Korea" and is part of a military-civil project to build unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Pacific Aerospace and its flagship airframe made international headlines in 2016 when one P-750 was spotted at an airshow in Wonson painted in the colours of North Korea.
The affair saw Pacific Aerospace plead guilty to three breaches of UN sanctions and one charge under the Customs and Excise Act. Court hearings heard the plane had been sold to its joint-venture partner and almost immediately sent for use in the rogue state.
Brady's paper notes BAIC have now adapted the P-750 into the P-720, a logistics UAV, citing 2017 Chinese media reports saying the drone is pitched for military use as an armed cargo vehicle for use in difficult-to-reach terrain.
Brady notes recent clashes between India and China in the remote Himalayan ranges would potentially provide an ideal operating theatre for such a vehicle.
Brady's paper also highlights the 2014 acquisition of jetpack maker Martin Aircraft by KuangChi, with production and intellectual property steadily moved offshore until the company's New Zealand production facilities were entirely wound down in 2019.
Dairy firm Shanghai Pengxin, which acquired the bulk of farms following the collapse of the Crafar empire in 2009, is also described as partnering with Chinese technology firm KuangChi to launch a near-space "Traveler" balloon from a dairy farm in Ashburton in 2017.
The "Traveler" is said on KuangChi's website to be capable of high-precision ground monitoring and has potential use as a suborbital spy satellite.
New Zealand university links with the Chinese military also come in for scrutiny by Brady, who draws on similar research in Australia to show New Zealand academics had co-published 32 papers in the past three years with research partners at PLA-affiliated universities.
Massey University's links come in for particular scrutiny, with attention drawn to the university's awarding of an honorary doctorate to Peng Liyuan, the wife of PRC leader Xi Jingping, in 2014.
Brady called on the select committee to review its overall China strategy, with particular attention to science and technology. She said moves to assess the scope of the problem and mitigate concerns being undertaken in Australia could serve as a model.
"Connections with Chinese military-affiliated universities and companies expose New Zealand to security risks. New Zealand companies and researchers should not be assisting the PLA to modernise," Brady said in her paper.
Technological transfers have become a flashpoint in global tensions between China and western states, with the latter characterising its concerns as related to national security while the former decries them as protectionism.
The highest-profile international tussle is over the role of Chinese technology giant Huawei's 5G mobile infrastructure.
In 2018 the United States began pushing Five Eyes intelligence alliance members - including New Zealand - to block the company's technology from its networks.
While the New Zealand Government took a cautious approach to the call, arguing the decision was for spy agency the Government Security and Communications Bureau and providers to work through security concerns, major player Spark switched from Huawei to a mixture of other provides - including Samsung and Nokia - for 5G equipment.
Yesterday the US ordered China to close its consulate in Houston "to protect American intellectual property and American private information".