Keeping an eye on Sino-US relations, Japanese universities to screen foreigners

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TOKYO – Japan is urging universities to conduct greater screening of foreign students and scholars to prevent technology leaks in places like China, partly for its own national security but also to secure exchanges with US and European universities.

Although many Western countries have instituted strict screening and penalties for violations to prevent espionage on their campuses, experts say Japan is a weak link due to the often unexpected hugs of foreign students.

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Officials say a string of arrests of Chinese academics in the United States in recent years on suspicion of espionage has been a wake-up call for Japan.

“Around the world, export controls are being tightened in foreign countries, such as China,” said an official from Japan’s Ministry of Commerce, which helps colleges develop high-risk technology transfers and ways to monitor students.

“We want Japanese universities to be trusted for their security and trade control so that joint research with the United States or Europe can continue,” said the official, who declined to be named, saying he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In a time of supply chain disruption, intellectual property theft and cyber attacks, economic security has become a top priority for policymakers worldwide and an important area of ​​diplomatic cooperation.

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Officials did not point to a specific incident in Japan that prompted the campaign but said there was a need for improvement in the area, at least not so that colleges could maintain ties with the United States and other Western partners.

The drive to increase surveillance at the academy is part of a push to expand its export controls in line with a new economic security bill passed this month.

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

‘Real and serious’ risk

Under the new guidelines, effective this month, universities are being asked to carry out background checks and flag people interested, such as those with ties to foreign governments or defense-related organizations.

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Previously, screening was limited to individuals trying to send potentially sensitive information and products abroad.

The new screening is designed as an additional layer on top of the immigrant visa system.

Until now, for example, a Chinese scholar would face some hurdles to pursue a doctorate course in advanced radar technology in Japan, subsidized by his government, and then go home to use the research for military purposes.

The same scholar can be rejected as a high-risk candidate in the United States, where there is a high risk for universities: in addition to the individual, they can be held responsible for any violation of export controls.

The U.S. embassy in Japan said it welcomed the revised guidelines. In an emailed statement to Reuters, it said the United States would look for new ways to help protect Japan and its universities against “real and serious” research safety challenges in both countries.

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Many Japanese universities are desperate to fill the space because the number of student-aged citizens in the elderly population is declining and foreigners have provided a lifeline.

Of the 279,597 foreign university students in Japan in 2020, 44% were Chinese students, according to official data.

In 2019, the United States was the top destination for Japanese researchers, followed by China.

‘Not Intelligence Operator’

But questions remain about how effective the new system will be, and some academics say they will not be left out just to catch spies.

The process relies slightly more than surveys to determine whether volunteer and foreign students are receiving state grants or want to tackle defense-related technology.

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Takahiko Sasaki, who oversees export control at Tohoku University, said his college would seek written assurances from staff not to teach sensitive technology to students or other faculty members affiliated with foreign government agencies without permission.

It would be at the top of an existing policy where foreign faculties and students would be asked to submit a written commitment to comply with Japanese export control regulations, he said.

“We are not intelligence operators. Examining CVs and Academic Records – This should be the amount of work we do as a university.

Immigration authorities have reportedly missed sensitive technology transfers in the past.

Japan’s intelligence agency has learned that nine Chinese researchers have returned to work in the defense sector after studying hypersonic missile technology at Japanese institutions, media reported last year.

Masahiko Hosokawa, a former Commerce Ministry official in charge of export control, said:

“They should find a way to work without Chinese citizens.” (Reporting by Xu-Min Park; Additional report by Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Chang-Run Kim, Robert Bircell)

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