With an eye on China and US ties, Japanese universities screen foreigners

TOKYO, May 23 (Reuters) – Japan is asking universities for greater scrutiny of foreign students and scholars to prevent technology leaks to countries like China, in part for its own national security but also to safeguard trade with American and European universities.

While many Western countries have measures in place to prevent espionage on their campuses with strict screening and penalties for violations, experts say Japan has been a weak link given its often uncontrolled to foreign students.

A string of US arrests of Chinese scholars in recent years on suspicion of espionage has been a wake-up call for Japan, officials say.

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“Around the world, export controls are getting tougher for foreign countries like China,” said an official with Japan’s Ministry of Commerce who helps colleges develop ways to monitor high-risk technology transfers. and students.

“We want Japanese universities to be trustworthy for their security and trade checks so that joint research with the United States or Europe can continue,” said the official, who declined to be identified. because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

In an era of debilitating supply chain disruptions, intellectual property theft and cyberattacks, economic security has become a top priority for policymakers around the world and a vital area for diplomatic cooperation.

Officials did not point to a specific incident in Japan that sparked the campaign, but instead said Japan needed improvement in the region, including for colleges to maintain ties with the United States and other Western partners.

The move to step up surveillance in academia is part of a push to expand its export controls, alongside a new economic security bill passed this month. Read more

As Western tension with China rises, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and visiting US President Joe Biden are expected to reaffirm greater coordination on technology, supply chains and other areas this week in Tokyo.

“REAL AND SERIOUS” RISKS

Under the new guidelines, effective this month, universities are asked to conduct background checks and report persons of interest, such as those with ties to foreign governments or defense-related institutions.

Previously, screening was limited to cases of people trying to send potentially sensitive information and assets overseas.

The new screening is designed as an additional layer on top of immigration visa procedures.

So far, for example, a government-sponsored Chinese scholar would face few obstacles to take a doctoral course on cutting-edge radar technology in Japan, then return home to put his research to good use. military.

The same academic could very well have been rejected as a high-risk candidate in the United States, where the stakes are high for universities: along with the individual, they can be held liable for any violation of export controls.

The US Embassy in Japan said it welcomes the revised guidelines. In a statement emailed to Reuters, he said the United States would seek new ways to help Japan and its universities protect against what it called “real world” research security challenges. and serious” in both countries.

Many Japanese universities are desperate to fill places as the number of study-age citizens dwindles in an aging population and foreigners have provided a lifeline.

Chinese students accounted for 44% of Japan’s 279,597 overseas university students in 2020, according to government data, while the United States was the top destination for Japanese scholars, followed by China, in 2019.

“NOT INTELLIGENCE OPERATORS”

But questions remain about the effectiveness of the new system and some academics say they are simply not cut out to be spy hunters.

The process is voluntary and relies on little more than surveys to determine whether international students are awarded state scholarships or intend to pursue defense-related technology.

Takahiko Sasaki, who oversees export controls at Tohoku University, said his university would ask staff to commit in writing not to teach sensitive technologies to students or other faculty members. with links to foreign government entities without authorization.

This would be in addition to an existing policy requiring foreign professors and students to commit in writing to abide by Japan’s export control regulations, he said.

“We are not intelligence operators. Checking CVs and academic records – that should be the scope of our work as a university.”

Immigration authorities are notorious for failing to transfer sensitive technology in the past.

Japan’s intelligence agency learned that nine Chinese researchers had returned home to work in the defense sector after years of studying hypersonic missile technologies at Japanese institutions, media reported last year.

“Universities need money to keep bringing in international students, but some have little sense of the crisis,” said Masahiko Hosokawa, a former Commerce Ministry official who was in charge of export controls. .

“They should find ways to operate without Chinese nationals.”

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Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, Robert Birsel

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