The Dutch Military Intelligence Agency and security service (MIVD) has recently released (April 19th, 2023) its Annual Report underlining perceived threats to the country. The report claims China to be the biggest threat to the Netherlands. The report adds that the Netherlands remains an attractive espionage target for China, particularly in the semiconductor industry, quantum technology, aerospace and maritime industry because of the good knowledge position of the Netherlands in these subjects. Dutch companies, knowledge institutions and scientists are targeted on a large scale. Hacker groups of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Ministry of State Security (MSS) cooperate extensively with public-private entities such as Chinese companies, hacker groups and universities to conduct, train, develop and support digital espionage activities.
The MIVD has further established that academic collaboration with Chinese PhD students entails the risk that Dutch knowledge will contribute to the build-up of the Chinese armed forces. In 2020, MIVD investigations showed for the first time that China is gathering military-relevant knowledge through Chinese PhD students affiliated with Dutch technical universities. In the year 2022, the MIVD conducted further investigation into this and established that increased attention in Western countries for academic cooperation with Chinese universities is closely monitored by China. In response to such heightened attention, China is implementing several measures to better disguise the affiliation between Chinese PhD students and the Chinese military-industrial complex. The country is investing heavily in people and resources to bring the military capabilities up to the level of the West and to become a leader in sub-areas. Weapon designs are stolen, talented students and professionals are sent out to acquire knowledge, international experts on military-relevant subjects are hired and imported.
Echoing similar concerns on Chinese PhD students’ involvement in espionage activities, the German and Swedish investigation has revealed that China Scholarship Council (CSC) scholarship holders have to give an undertaking to the Chinese government to send information on regular basis, not participate in any activity that would harm Chinese interests and return after the study period. At least two family members in China have to guarantee the compliance of these terms by the students and are jointly liable if they are not complied with. Following the investigation, the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, has decided not to admit CSC PhD students. The CSC is funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education.
The Dutch Intelligence report further underlines that at a time when internal structural problems as well as external pressures on China are mounting, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is moving towards more centralization of power, more control over Chinese society and more political-ideological conformity to the Party line. In addition, Beijing will increasingly use its economic power by threatening economic consequences, deteriorating trade relations or reduced access to the huge Chinese market as a means of pressure against European countries that, in the eyes of the Chinese leadership, stand in the way of China’s core interests in the world. The Dutch Intelligence Report findings are perhaps not limited to the Netherlands only. The perceived threats from China, highlighted in the report, may be applicable to entire Europe. An intense cooperation between different intelligence agencies of Europe is the need of the hour to safeguard vital infrastructure and knowledge institutions against unwanted strategic dependencies and unwanted knowledge and technology transfer to China.