Invisible threats / Japan seeks to prevent outflow of technology

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Chinese Dongfeng-17 missiles are seen in October 2019.

This is the fourth installment in a series that explores Japan’s vulnerabilities in areas including the protection of vital information and supply networks, prompting the Japanese government to expedite efforts to pass an “economic security promotion law.”

Last May, Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA) secretly distributed a report to related ministers, warning that China was feared to have used Japanese expertise in developing state-of-the-art hypersonic technology, which has been described as a “game changer” for war.

Hypersonic weapons travel at speeds of Mach 5 and higher, and it is believed that current missile defenses would have difficulty intercepting them.

“There are many Chinese researchers who engage in hypersonic research at Chinese universities and research institutes after returning from our country,” the report read. It also listed the names of nine experts in such fields as jet engines, fluid mechanics and heat-resistant materials.

According to PSIA sources, one of the experts was an assistant professor at Tohoku University in 1994 after working as a research fellow at an institute affiliated with a Chinese defense company.

He was subsidized by the Japanese government under the Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research program and often visited a facility in Miyagi Prefecture affiliated with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Returning to China around 2000, the researcher joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences and was said to have been involved in the construction of a hypersonic experiment facility similar to JAXA’s facility in 2017.

In 2008, China launched the “Thousand Talents Plan,” a program to attract talented scientists from overseas. China is believed to have strategically sent researchers to other nations, in a bid to bring hypersonic weapons technology back through them.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration places a high priority on hypersonic weapons, and China is more advanced in their development than the United States. In 2019, China unveiled the Dongfeng-17, an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of carrying weapons, at a military parade.

Russia and North Korea are also eager to deploy hypersonic weapons. Propelled by a sense of crisis over this situation, Japan and the United States proposed cooperation in detecting and intercepting missiles for the first time at a two-plus-two Security Consultative Committee meeting of their foreign and defense ministers in January.

‘Shadow lab’

Japanese government officials see the experimental facility built by the former Tohoku University assistant professor as a typical example of a “shadow lab,” which reproduces conditions similar to those in other countries in order for China to adopt advanced technologies.

In September last year, the Tokyo University of Science announced that its former president and Emeritus Prof. Akira Fujishima would conduct research at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology (USST). Science and Technology Policy Minister Shinji Inoue responded that this made him feel “a great sense of crisis.”

The 79-year-old Fujishima is known around the world for his contributions to photocatalytic research, and has been cited as a possible Nobel Prize winner in the future. According to the USST’s statement, Fujishima and his research team will work together in China.

The new photocatalyst research facility to be built by the USST will likely be similar to the Tokyo University of Science Photocatalysis International Research Center, which was in operation through March 2021.

Fujishima told The Yomiuri Shimbun: “I study for mankind, and it doesn’t matter if the research is done in Japan or China. It’s basic research, so it’s only natural for the facilities to be alike.”

Photocatalysts are being studied for use in purifying air on space stations. Some observers say China is seeking to embrace such technology in anticipation of a space market.

Trial and error

To stop technology leaks, Japan must provide world-class conditions and ample research funds for outstanding researchers like Fujishima.

Under Japan’s economic security promotion bill, the government will select crucial technological fields, such as space, to support their development by the public and private sectors. Money will be generated from an “economic security fund,” which will eventually grow to about ¥500 billion, to improve research environments.

To prevent technology leaks triggered by foreign funding, researchers will be required from April to tell universities and institutions they belong to in Japan about their funding and whether they are also working anywhere else.

Tohoku University will take the lead in establishing an internal organization for this purpose and clarifying possible difficulties with its operation. The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will receive a report from Tohoku University by the end of March and disseminate it nationwide as a model case.

The government is urging universities to address “new risks associated with the internationalization and greater openness of research.” Because the government has not established specific criteria regarding these risks, however, Tohoku University Prof. Takahiko Sasaki said it is difficult to conduct screenings. Sasaki was among those who helped prepare for the new system.

For example, there are no legal restrictions on professors at Japanese universities receiving donations from Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese telecommunications equipment maker that the United States is trying to block for alleged theft of trade secrets.

“The pros and cons of individual cases can only be determined by the international and social situation at the time,” Sasaki said. “There may be some confusion in the operation of the system.”