Stop Federal Grants from Strengthening China’s Military

Stop Federal Grants from Strengthening China’s Military

New evidence shows that the Department of Defense is still collaborating with China on the development of critical technology. 

Last November, investigative reporters uncovered that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had provided $30 million in artificial intelligence research grants to a Chinese scientist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, a university tasked with developing next-generation weapons for the People’s Liberation Army. The news came as a shock to American policymakers and ordinary citizens alike. It was unthinkable that the U.S. government would fund our chief adversary’s defense industrial base.

I would like to say the story ends there. The reality, however, is that this scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. A new unclassified analysis provided to my office by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) reveals that U.S. taxpayers have been unwittingly funding thousands of Chinese experiments with direct applications to the Chinese military. Their findings note more than 5,000 instances of research collaboration between the DoD’s funding agencies and Chinese entities between 2019 and 2024.

These are not just any entities but groups closely linked to Beijing’s ambitions to steal American technology and defeat the U.S. military in a potential conflict. NCIS specifically records eighty-one collaborations with China’s nuclear weapon research and development complex, hundreds of collaborations with the “Seven Sons of National Defense” and the “Seven Sons of Ordnance Industry”—China’s premier defense industry-affiliated universities—and seventeen collaborations with China’s National University of Defense Technology—the People’s Liberation Army’s premier scientific research institute. NCIS also reports dozens of collaborations connected to Beijing’s “acknowledge talent” program, an initiative that recruits top minds to appropriate information and expertise for China’s economic and military development.

Altogether, per NCIS, roughly half “of [U.S. defense research relationships] with China in the last 5 years [have been] directly with [China’s] Defense Research and Industrial base.” To be perfectly clear, these are far from merely academic experiments. They have focused on facial recognition, stealth technology, underwater acoustics, explosives, semiconductors, cryptography, cybersecurity, and data mining, to name just a few topics. Such research, facilitated by our own government, may have already given Beijing an edge in key areas of twenty-first-century warfare.

This research is also problematic on human rights grounds. For more than a decade, the DoD has supported scientists who have partnered with Huawei, Baidu, Alibaba, SenseTime, Tencent, and Hikvision (as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Automation) on red flag topics like facial recognition and other surveillance-related technology. Some of these companies are complicit in Beijing’s mass surveillance programs and systematic oppression of the Chinese people, including the genocide of the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious groups. We have rightly sanctioned many of them for egregious crimes against humanity—yet, apparently, we are also contributing to their work.

How and why did we let this happen? Bureaucratic negligence, naïveté of the “science knows no borders” variety, and genuine ignorance of Beijing’s technology theft strategies all played parts in the mix-up. China now has nearly unfettered access to America’s fundamental research due to a lack of prohibitions in grant language pertaining to co-authorship and collaboration. NCIS deserves credit for its analysis, but at the same time, it reveals only a small sample of the problematic studies that the DoD and other U.S. funding agencies have made possible.

If this much taxpayer-funded research is vulnerable to our adversaries’ exploitation, something needs to change. After all, there is no excuse for supporting groups or individuals explicitly committed to harming our national interests. Americans pay their taxes on the understanding that their government will use that money to protect them from foreign threats, not help build weapons designed to kill them or their sons and daughters in uniform.

Should we respond by shutting down the federal programs that fund innovative research and development projects? Of course not. If anything, we need more such projects to compensate for the military advantage irresponsible partnerships have given China. Nevertheless, Congress can and should establish guardrails that prevent any further research relationships between the Pentagon and Beijing.

U.S. Representative Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) and I are preparing to introduce new legislation, the FORTIFY U.S. Research Act, to safeguard taxpayer-funded research and close loopholes that have enabled our adversaries to exploit it. Our bicameral bill would direct the U.S. intelligence community to assess the full extent of problematic research collaboration with China, restrict defense collaboration with Chinese entities, crack down on federal grant application fraud, increase transparency across grant-making institutions, and more.

New legislation is hard to pass and enact, especially during a presidential election year, but this is what the nation requires to prevent government incompetence from jeopardizing our security. It is also what the American people require to begin restoring their faith in our institutions. The longer we wait to act, the more that faith will fade—and the more its fading will be justified.

About the Author: 

Marco Rubio is the senior U.S. senator from Florida. He is also the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.