National Security

CSIRO cuts China WMD academic

May 20, 2024

20 May 2024
Jamie Walker
The Australian

 Australia's national science agency has cut ties with a Chinese researcher  linked to weapons of mass destruction, heaping pressure on the university  that continues to back him.
 In response to national security concerns raised by Liberal frontbencher  James Paterson, CSIRO confirmed it had "ceased working" with PhD  candidate Xiaolong Zhu in August 2022.
 The 35-year-old Chinese national is subject to a 2020 finding by the  Australian government that he may be "directly or indirectly  associated" with WMD proliferation, resulting in the rejection of his  application for a visa to develop cutting-edge drone systems at the  Queensland University of Technology.
 Senator Paterson, Coalition home affairs and cyber security spokesman, last  week wrote to QUT vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil asking why Mr Zhu remained  attached to its Centre for Robotics.
 Separately, he sought an explanation from CSIRO boss Doug Hilton of the  agency's support for Mr Zhu through scholarships worth at least $75,000.
 National security experts say Mr Zhu's work is consistent with  "dual-use" research that could be readily applied to warfighting by  a foreign power such as China.
 Replying to Senator Paterson on behalf of Professor Sheil, who was on leave,  the acting vicechancellor, Christopher BarnerKowollik, said the university  did "not comment on sensitive matters concerning national  security".
 QUT had earlier told The Australian that Mr Zhu, as a "lawful  non-citizen of Australia with study rights", was continuing in his PhD  research into drone navigation technology.
 Senator Paterson said the university's decision to "apparently stand  by" him was even more questionable in light of CSIRO's decision to cut  the researcher loose.
 "CSIRO's advice that they ceased work with Mr Zhu in 2022 is very  welcome," Senator Paterson said.
 "No visa applicant refused on national security grounds should be the  recipient of taxpayer-funded research grants.
 "But QUT's decision to apparently stand by their student and his  research is now even more questionable. Do they really believe they are in a  better position to judge national security risk than the federal government?
 "What information do they think they have that Home Affairs, the CSIRO,  the Foreign Minister and the Federal Court does not. Their handling of this  case raises major questions about QUT's ability to safeguard Australia's  research security and our current policy settings." In a statement to  this masthead on Sunday, QUT confirmed that Mr Zhu continued to pursue a  higher degree by research and receive a "tuition fee waiver".
 Asked why the university had maintained its relationship with Mr Zhu when  CSIRO had not, a spokesperson said: "QUT observes all its legal  requirements with regard to national security and foreign interference and  follows all lawful directions from the authorities." On Senator  Paterson's criticism, the spokesperson said: "QUT cannot comment on  CSIRO matters that we have no insight into." Defending CSIRO's  management of research security, a spokesperson for the agency said it had implemented  a range of specific measures to counter the threat of foreign intervention  including the Australian government's protective security policy framework,  an information security manual and a 2021 research engagement sensitivities  tool recognised "as a best practice process for managing the risk".
 "We continue to consult closely with our national security colleagues in  government and have widely benchmarked our approach with our colleagues in  the Australian research sector and our counterparts in the US, UK and  Canada," the CSIRO spokesperson said.
 Over the past decade, four other foreign researchers enrolled in Australian  PhD programs one Iranian, three Chinese are known to have had potential links  to WMD cited when their visa applications were rejected.
 Neither they nor the Australian universities sponsoring them was given  reasons.
 Academic Brendan WalkerMunro, who has studied research security in this  country, said the capacity of the Home Affairs Minister or a delegate to  refuse or cancel a student visa on national security grounds had been widened  in April to cover the "unreasonable risk of unwanted transfer of  critical technology".
 Mr Zhu's lawyers say they are considering whether to appeal his latest  knockback in the Federal Circuit and Family Court. He has declined to be  interviewed.
 Senator Paterson has said Mr Zhu's research into operating drones in  GPS-denied environments on civil search and rescue missions was a classic  example of dual-use work that had clear military application.

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