A push for decoupling between China and Australia could jeopardise not only trade, but knowledge and commercial benefits gleaned from growing research collaboration, a new report said on Tuesday.
China has overtaken the United States as Australia’s leading international partner in producing scientific papers, the results of which can often be commercialised, according to the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) at the University of Technology Sydney.
And while knowledge and research collaboration needed to be managed to ensure national security, this must be balanced with scientific discovery, the report argued.
In 2019, the number of Australian scientific papers involving a researcher affiliated with a Chinese institution grew by 13.1 per cent, while the number involving a US-affiliated researcher declined by 0.3 per cent, the ACRI report said.
This makes it plain that if Australia wants to be at the forefront of knowledge creation in material sciences, it is in Australia’s interests to engage with ChinaJames Laurenceson
Australia-China collaborations now comprise 16.2 per cent of all Australian scientific papers, up from 3.1 per cent in 2005. The US is Australia’s second largest partner in scientific papers at 15.5 per cent followed by Britain at 11.7 per cent.
Collaboration was mainly conducted in the fields of materials science, chemical engineering and energy, areas of speciality for Chinese research. China was responsible for 37 per cent of the global research papers on materials science in 2019, whereas Australia only produced 2.1 per cent.
“This makes it plain that if Australia wants to be at the forefront of knowledge creation in material sciences, it is in Australia’s interests to engage with China. And that is exactly what happens,” co-author and ACRI director James Laurenceson said.
“Risks need to be managed. And they are. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees and the reality is that working with China benefits Australia’s national interests.”
“The fact that Australia-China collaboration is so extensive is testament to the scale of the mutual benefits involved.”
China and Australia have been embroiled in a trade dispute since April, when Canberra pushed for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, drawing Beijing’s ire and prompting concerns about the potential for a new trade war.
Theft of intellectual property (IP) or proprietary knowledge is one of the main issues at the heart of the US-China trade dispute.
US President Donald Trump, in imposing tariffs on Chinese imports, claimed Beijing had repeatedly attempted to steal American intellectual property through its “technology transfer policies”, which required foreign businesses to form joint ventures with domestic Chinese companies when operating in the country, thereby exposing them to potential IP theft.
But the circumstances surrounding shared collaboration are different, according to the ACRI, a research centre initially set up with funding from Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo, who was stripped of his Australian residency early last year over allegations he interfered in Australian domestic policies.
Unlike intellectual property, new joint research cannot be “stolen” and once it is concluded it is openly shared. Controls also exist at national levels to protect sensitive technologies, the ACRI said.
“[Also] unlike the US, and increasingly China, Australia is not a major global source of commercially valuable intellectual property. Australia is a net intellectual property importer and always has been,” Laurenceson said.
In recent years, increased research collaboration between the two countries has drawn criticism in Australia, with some groups saying there should be a limit due to national security risks and China’s poor human rights record.Groups like the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney have also said technology decoupling between the US and China could put pressure on Australia to follow suit “owing to its deep enmeshment with America’s scientific infrastructure” and “to limit its science and technology interaction with China in critical dual-use fields to maintain technological collaboration with the US”. Dual-use technologies can be used for both civilian and military purposes.
ACRI also said concerns in Australia that science and technology priorities were being controlled by the Chinese government because funding were largely unfounded. It cited two incidents in the past three years in which the Department of Defence told a parliamentary inquiry there were no university breaches of technology controlled under the Defence Trade Controls Act.
If actions we take have the effect of reducing fruitful collaboration instead of only stopping the problematic kind, a blunt decoupling would obviously throw the baby out with the bath waterRoland Rajah
“This means that the tendency of some local commentators to regurgitate a US government talking point about China struggles against facts and evidence in an Australian context,” Laurenceson said.
Decoupling in research collaboration would have negative effects on both countries, but protection of research on possible dual use technologies was needed, said the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank based in Sydney.
“The big difficulty is telling good from bad. If actions we take have the effect of reducing fruitful collaboration instead of only stopping the problematic kind, a blunt decoupling would obviously throw the baby out with the bath water,” Lowy Institute economist Roland Rajah said.
“That seems unlikely at this point. The more difficult issue is that it can be difficult to tell what should genuinely be seen as dual use and what should not.”
Despite the debate, Australia-China collaborations continue and earlier this month a fourth funding round worth up to A$5 million (US$3.6 million) for food and agribusiness research through the Australia-China Science and Research Fund-Joint Research Centres opened for applications.
An evaluation of the programme from 2011 to 2014 by consulting firm ACIL Allen shows that “despite the programme having only been in operation for a relatively short time, it already appears likely to deliver outputs that will lead to the commercialisation of new products or services”.
The bilateral programme has led to the creation of companies like Australia-based Renergi, which used outcomes from the energy round of the scheme to develop and commercialise innovative bioenergy and biofuel technologies, according to the Australian Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.
Courtesy – SCMP