Is our university system being used to augment China's military development? This is the question western government around the world are grappling with, and now New Zealand is too.

The first outward sign of this was news the Security Intelligence Service and the New Zealand Immigration Service is investigating a Chinese PhD student, Hu Bin at Auckland University of Technology. His research on 5G technology has military applications.

5G networks could be used as a weapon, or a point of attack, in a time of military conflict. China is linked to multiple cyber attacks on the US and other nations, including New Zealand. China has a dominant position in network infrastructure and is now expanding this via the Digital Silk Road; part of the globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative.

The Digital Silk Road could provide enhanced missile positioning, timing and enhanced C4ISR capabilities for the Chinese military, as well as navigation services to more than 69 countries along the Belt and Road, including partners in Oceania. The New Zealand Coalition government is currently mulling whether to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative.

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Hu's research apparently came to attention because under the Strategic Goods Regulations, New Zealand entities — including universities — are prohibited from the development, production, or deployment of any goods or know-how with a military end use unless a permit has been obtained from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade. New Zealand's Strategic Goods Regulations are based on the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the control measures of the Australia Group, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Signatories to the Wassenaar Arrangement commit to not exporting dual-use goods, technologies, or know-how to non-Wassenaar members. China is not a member of the Wassenaar Arrangement.

China is New Zealand's largest export market, absorbing 22 per cent of all our exports. It is also New Zealand's largest market for foreign students and New Zealand's sixth largest foreign scientific research partner.

The New Zealand government has long-encouraged New Zealand universities to partner with their Chinese counterparts on science and technology projects. New Zealand and China signed a Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement in 1987, and updated it in 2003. The New Zealand-China Strategic Research Alliance (SRA) was set up in 2010. The SRA aims to increase scientific research partnerships and greater commercialisation of science between China and New Zealand.

Most of these partnerships are benign. However cases like that of Mr Hu demonstrate that there are areas of concern where research links have a possible military end use application. There is a need for a conversation about national security concerns between the government and New Zealand's scientific community. Changes in policy in China are accelerating the urgency of this conversation.

President Xi Jinping declared China's new civil-military integration policy in March 2015 and official documents issued in December 2017 codified the strategy. Xi's announcement was an acknowledgement of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government's longstanding approach of utilising the civil sector to acquire and develop military technology and know-how both in China and abroad.

People's Liberation Army (PLA) institutions, including PLA-affiliated and linked universities, work closely with non-military universities and companies in China. Through their contacts abroad, Chinese universities and companies provide a channel that can allow the PLA to benefit from research conducted outside China.

In recent years most of New Zealand's universities have established partnerships with Chinese universities that are linked to the PLA. These range from the PLA Institute of Military Culture (Massey); the National University of Defence Technology (Auckland, Massey); North-western Polytechnical University (Canterbury), Shenyang Aerospace University (UNITEC), to Xidian University (Otago, VUW). A similar pattern of relationships is found in Australian universities.

New Zealand academics supervise doctoral students who were graduates of PLA-linked universities before coming to New Zealand, and they host graduate students and staff currently working at such institutions on short term fellowships. Some New Zealand academics have joint appointments or advisory roles at PLA-linked universities.

Several New Zealand universities are now in partnership with Chinese companies, such as Iflytek and Huawei who are understood to have links with the Chinese military sector. Several PLA-linked universities have also set up alumni associations in New Zealand to maintain connections with former staff and students.

The New Zealand government needs to re-examine its policies on encouraging scientific exchanges with Chinese universities in the light of China's changed policies to merge military and civil research.

Connections between Chinese military-affiliated universities and New Zealand universities expose New Zealand to potential security risks. While most links are not of concern, some potentially breach our international obligations forbidding the export of military end use goods, technologies and know-how. They may also have a negative impact on international sources of funding, if funding providers are uncomfortable with the potential that the knowledge obtained will be shared with China.

New Zealand universities must partner with the government to come up with a solution which will uphold academic freedom and intellectual property rights, at the same time as dealing with the security concerns.