China Attempted Covert Military Drone Tie-Up With UK University – Report

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A new report has revealed apparently secretive attempts by a Chinese state-owned enterprise to access cutting-edge AI research at a UK university for military use.

Non-profit UK-China Transparency (UKCT) claimed in the report published yesterday that China’s Jiangsu Automation Research Institute (JARI) signed a three-year £3m partnership with the Data Science Institute (DSI) at Imperial College London back in 2019.

According to the report, the tie-up was intended to create a “Future Digital Ocean Innovation Centre” where Imperial data scientists would work with JARI on a range of projects. These apparently included: ocean modeling and forecasting; a deep-learning framework for oceanic data; blockchain for maritime trade documents and data; and machine learning for port logistics.

According to the agreement, JARI would also sponsor PhD studentships at the DSI.

However, ulterior motives from Beijing may have been behind the tie-up, the report alleged.

It focused on Huang Ping, a British citizen of Chinese origin who was hired by Imperial in 2018 and started to work at the DSI a year later. UKCT claims she has close links to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD).

“A Mandarin-language email sent by JARI to Huang Ping in 2018 proposed military end-uses for the research. UKCT received this email from Imperial in response to an FOI request for email chains relating to Huang’s role in the JARI-DSI partnership negotiations,” the report revealed.

“JARI’s intention to use the partnership for military ends was not translated from Mandarin into English in the email chains provided by Imperial to UKCT, which UKCT has published in full.”

In the end, the JARI-DSI partnership was terminated in March 2021 and all upfront funding returned by the university after “consideration of UK export control legislation and consultation with UK government.”

Controversy Stalks Universities

However, Huang continues to work at the university, in a new role which now includes “blanket responsibility for China collaboration,” according to UKCT.

World-leading data scientist Guo Yike, who led the DSI at the time of the partnership, had from 2017 worked with China-based scientists on Beijing-funded research into methods for coordinating swarms of marine combat drones for military purposes, UKCT said.

Hi collaborators were Shanghai University’s Marine Drone Engineering Research Institute (MDERI), which also works with the Chinese military, according to the report.

Guo has left the DSI but remains a director of BGI Research Foundation UK Ltd, which is controlled by BGI Group – a controversial Chinese genomics company that has worked with the Chinese military and been sanctioned by the US.

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Imperial College defended its actions.

“Under Imperial’s policies, partnerships and collaborations are subject to due diligence and regular review,” read a statement sent to The Guardian. “The decision to terminate the partnership was made after consideration of UK export control legislation and consultation with the government, taking into consideration national security concerns.”

Imperial received more than £18m in funding from Chinese military-linked institutes and companies between 2017 and 2022, according to the paper. Since then it has been forced to shut down several joint-ventures after closer government scrutiny.

MI5 briefed vice-chancellors from 24 leading universities back in April, warning that cutting-edge research is being targeted by hostile nations to boost their militaries and economies.

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