National Security

Five hit with WMD black-listing

May 12, 2024

Sunday 12 May 2024
Jamie Walker
The Australian

 A Chinese researcher accused of involvement in the proliferation of weapons  of mass destruction is the fifth visa applicant known to have been  black-listed by the Australian government over WMD connections, court and  tribunal records show.
 Xiaolong Zhu has been fighting his rejection for a student visa and likely  deportation for four years, while pushing on with potentially sensitive drone  research at the Queensland University of Technology.
 The Weekend Australian revealed how the 35-year-old Chinese national had been  found in a 2020 determination by the foreign minister to be a person whose  presence in this country "may be directly or indirectly associated with  the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".
 The Department of Home Affairs, QUT and the CSIRO division that awarded Mr  Zhu PhD scholarships worth $75,000 have failed to answer detailed questions  from this masthead about the baffling case.
 Opposition home affairs and cyber security spokesman James Paterson, who  chaired the powerful parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and  security under the previous Morrison government, rejected an assertion by QUT  that Mr Zhu's research in Australia had no military application.
 Senator Paterson said the young man's work on navigation technology to fly  drones into spaces lacking GPS coverage was a classic example of dual-use  research readily transferable to war fighting. This was increasingly being  targeted by foreign intelligence services, he warned.
 "It should not require any imagination at all to understand why  operating a drone in a GPSdenied environment would have military  applications," Senator Paterson said on Sunday.
 "This is the classic case of drones in military conflict where you hope  to be able to continue to use them for surveillance, for target  identification and for reconnaissance when a GPS network has been taken out,  as is highly likely in any major conflict." The WMD finding against Mr  Zhu is covered by nondisclosure certificates issued by Home Affairs, and it  is not clear whether the other parties including Mr Zhu himself are aware of  what he has been accused of.
 A May 3 decision by Federal Circuit and Family Court judge Gregory Egan  dismissing his latest appeal of the adverse visa decision noted that the  certificated documents "shed no light" on why he had been banned,  "merely that the determination had been made that he was such a  person".
 The other four known cases concerning alleged WMD association also involved  highly qualified foreign postgraduate students who were deemed to have failed  the public interest criterion of the Migration Regulations.
 In pursuing them, the government has gone to strenuous lengths to keep secret  the assessment processes used by Australian intelligence and security agencies  to make WMD findings reaching back more than a decade.
 In a 2013 Federal Court case, an Iranian researcher identified as plaintiff  B60 challenged the rejection of her student visa application as a person who  could be associated with the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and  biological weapons.
 Like Mr Zhu, the woman professed to be "amazed and shocked" to have  been subject to such a finding after she was awarded a government scholarship  to join a doctoral research program at the University of Queensland on  hydrogen-based clean energy. The judge found she was "not, at any time  advised of facts which were adverse" to her visa application.
 The then deputy secretary for intelligence and security in the Defence  Department, Stephen Meekin, gave evidence that a "discrete class"  of classified documents had been "created for the specific purpose of  informing the Australian government of a visa applicant's links to the  proliferation of WMD".
 If these were disclosed, it would "likely prejudice Australia's . security  and defence interests by revealing in a high level of detail information from  many disparate sources how Australia's defence intelligence agencies and  organisations integrate and analyse that intelligence information, and the  scope and limits of the Australian government's awareness of WMD programs and  threats." While Justice John Dowsett identified a risk that "like  any specialised group, the intelligence community may become, or have become  preoccupied with itself, its own values and perceived importance", he  accepted that disclosure of the classified files would be a threat to the  public interest.
 "In the circumstances I concluded that the WMD assessments are documents  of a class which ought, for that reason alone, to be treated as immune from  disclosure," the judge ruled.
 In the case of Chinese national Huimin Yu, 29, whose application for a  student visa to enter a PhD course at the University of South Australia was  refused in 2020, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal also found it could not  "of itself, go behind the decision" on her possible WMD links, and  that she had accepted this.
 But the AAT upheld, on procedural grounds, that part of the adverse  determination had not been properly made out and sent her file back to Home  Affairs for reconsideration. The outcome is not known.
 Through his lawyers, Mr Zhu told Judge Egan and, earlier, the AAT, that he  didn't know he had been linked to WMD proliferation by the government.
 Defending him in a 2020 letter to the Department of Home Affairs, then QUT pro-vice-chancellor  Helen Klaebe wrote: "I would like to confirm that the specific research  topic of Ziaolong (sic) Zhu's PhD thesis is not directly or indirectly  associated with a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The topic of  his research . concentrates on decision-making theory and aims to develop an  efficient system that uses three or four UAVs also commonly known as drones  for civilian application scenarios . in an indoor clutter environment during  search-and-rescue missions." However, the finding against him will  intensify concern about research security at Australian universities, with  Senator Paterson saying the espionage risks should be clearly understood  following the establishment five years ago of the governmentbacked University  Foreign Interference Taskforce and disturbing revelations from a 2021-22  inquiry by the joint parliamentary security and intelligence committee he  chaired. This heard evidence of researchers and their families being  threatened by foreign intelligence operatives wanting access to their  sensitive work.
 Drone technology is considered a prime target and the QUT Centre for  Robotics, to which Mr Zhu is attached, boasts world-class scientists and  labs.
 "It's several years on from the intelligence committee inquiry and  there's really no excuse today for permitting high-risk research in the  dual-use area to occur on university campuses, particularly with students who  come from authoritarian countries and especially China, given that it's been  publicly assessed to be the number one source of state-backed intellectual  property theft and we know it has coercive and intimidatory intentions  towards the region," Senator Paterson told The Australian. "The  naivety of facilitating dual-use research for an authoritarian state is just  unforgivable in this day and age." Academic Brendan WalkerMunro of  Southern Cross University, who has published on the vulnerability of  Australian research programs to spying, said the UFIT guidelines needed  strengthening.
 "Even the legal narrative that Zhu is 'directly or indirectly associated  with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction' doesn't explain the  case properly," Dr Walker-Munro posted at the weekend.
 "The real issue is Zhu's research . could be just as easily used in  missiles or autonomous weapons as it could be for searchand-rescue  operations.
 "That said, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Zhu has done the  wrong thing or committed any crime here. But this is the archetypal dual-use  case study in university research.
 "We don't have a research security policy in this country and the UFIT  guidelines which no doubt QUT will have followed to the letter aren't doing  the job." The Brisbane university declined to comment when approached on  Sunday. CSIRO Data61 said it was unable to discuss individual student or  scholarship arrangements, but worked closely with security and policy  agencies to manage the risk of foreign interference.

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