The Defense Department is investigating research partnerships between Chinese companies and American universities amid threats of spying and technology theft on behalf of Beijing’s government, a senior official said Thursday.
Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said the concern is particularly pressing at U.S. campuses that both have ties with Chinese firms and host sensitive Pentagon research.
"I am concerned that we are not yet as vigilant as we should be about making sure that [Pentagon] research doesn’t go to places that have those ties," Griffin testified before the House Armed Services Committee. "Certainly, universities have a very long, multi-decade history of collaboration with the national security community writ large on problems of national interest, it's one of our greatest strengths, but doing so in an environment that can be penetrated by adversaries is not wise and we are looking more closely to that."
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Eric Chewning, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy, said the Pentagon is reviewing the contract language associated with DOD-funded projects at universities working with Chinese companies. He said the threat underscores the tension between America’s open innovation model versus China’s closed model.
Congress has also targeted these partnerships in recent months, hosting several congressional panels that have examined attempts by foreign actors to infiltrate American institutions of higher education to conduct espionage and steal federally funded research.
A bipartisan group of 26 lawmakers on Tuesday sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy Devos urging her to require American universities working with Chinese technology titan Huawei to handover all documents and information related to the partnership.
The letter, spearheaded by Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.), said Huawei's partnerships with more than 50 U.S. universities "may pose a significant threat to national security" given China's history of exploiting U.S. economic openness to dominate the tech field.
U.S. intelligence agencies have warned for years of Huawei's ties to the Chinese government and People's Liberation Army. The company denies all connections to the PLA.
Griffin told the House panel he has not spoken to anyone in the Education Department about Huawei's presence on American campuses, but said he would "be happy to do so."