Senior federal government sources said the university needed to be careful about collaborating on the design of a jet that has been linked to an allegedly significant industrial espionage campaign by the Chinese government.
Alex Joske, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said COMAC’s close ties to China’s defence industry and military raised genuine concerns that its achievements will be used for both civilian and defence purposes.
Mr Joske said the fact COMAC was part-owned by defence companies makes it “nearly impossible” to separate civilian and military applications of joint research.
“Its links to state-backed industrial espionage are also alarming and associated risks will be extremely difficult for the university to handle,” Mr Joske said.
“Monash University should also be wary of any commitments to train COMAC personnel. Universities should always seek to be fully aware of the risks of engaging with partners in China on dual-use technologies.
“I can’t think of any realistic arrangement that would prevent dual-use collaboration with COMAC from ultimately being steered towards military uses.”
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government expected universities to “act legally and ethically”.
Mr Tehan said all universities have adopted the government’s guidelines to counter foreign interference, which were published last year.
The guidelines included a recommendation for universities to “incorporate into existing relevant frameworks foreign interference threats and vulnerabilities to the university’s people, information and assets and outline mitigation measures” and that universities have “policies and procedures [that] outline the requirements for staff, students, contractors and honorary staff engaging in international collaboration, proportionate to the risk”.
A spokesman for Monash confirmed the agreements between the university and COMAC were “proceeding as planned” and included the design and construction of the C919 airliner.
“An Aeronautical Research Centre will also be established at the Monash Technology Precinct in Clayton,” the spokesman said.
“Any collaborations with international entities are subject to strict national rules on research collaborations and Monash University has processes in place to ensure they comply with those rules.
“The University also regularly monitors advice provided by the government, intelligence agencies and the wider education sector, and acts in accordance with advice received.”
In a report last year, cyber security firm CrowdStrike said the industrial espionage linked to COMAC involved cyber-attacks, forced technology transfer and theft by insiders at global component suppliers. The report concluded China was seeking to “cut corners” in advancing its domestic aerospace industry.
Mr Andrews witnessed the signing of last year’s agreement between Monash and COMAC that will see the company invest in a new research and development centre at Clayton, which could pursue projects on advanced manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and big data.
Senior figures within the Morrison government are also privately concerned with the Victorian government’s BRI agreement with Beijing, which will allow for Chinese investment in Victoria and for Victorian companies to participate in Chinese government projects overseas.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday said Victoria’s BRI agreement was inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy, and urged Mr Andrews to scrap the deal.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.