PRC Transfer of Military and Dual-Use Technology: the Case of the International Conference on Defence Technology

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 12

Promotional material of the 2022 International Conference on Defense Technology (Source: Weixin)

Executive Summary:

  • The International Conference on Defence Technology (ICDT), held biannually since 2018, exemplifies an approach by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to leverage defense technology from Western researchers. The conference features participation from PRC defense entities and Western scientists, facilitating direct transfer of advanced defense technology insights to the People’s Liberation Army.
  • The Military-Civil Fusion development strategy has increased the absorption of foreign S&T knowledge for military purposes. Research with any PRC institution operates under the premise that anything with potential military applications will be utilized for defense purposes.
  • Despite increased awareness of PRC’s tech transfer efforts, Western researchers continue to attend PRC-hosted conferences with military affiliations, exposing them to risks of being probed for sensitive information and potential espionage activities.

Other conference organizers in recent years have included multiple PRC labs and other institutions with close ties to the military (SciMeeting, accessed March 14). These include multiple subsidiaries of Norinco, as well as prominent defense labs such as the National Key Laboratory of Transient Physics (瞬态物理国家重点实验室), which conducts research on creating better artillery, missile, and torpedo technology (and with which Clive Woodley appears to have a relationship); and the Key Laboratory of Space Chemical Power Technology, which researches propellants for rockets and ballistic missiles (ICDT, accessed May 29; NJUST, November 3, 2016; BUAA, accessed March 14). Perhaps most concerning, the most recent conference in 2022 was co-organized by the Laboratory of Computational Physics, a military lab affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), the research institution which oversees the PRC’s nuclear weapons program (ICDT, accessed May 29). The CAEP institute that oversees this lab has previously been implicated in industrial espionage (WSJ, August 10, 2005).

Recent sponsors of the conference have included Beijing Institute of Technology and Nanjing University of Science and Technology, both members of the “Seven Sons of National Defense (国防七子),” a consortium of universities directly overseen by the PRC’s defense industrial authority which are known for their close ties to the military establishment and which have been blacklisted by the US government (ASPI, November 25, 2019; eCFR, accessed May 24).

ICDT’s Purpose, Program, and Participants

PRC sources are not subtle about the purpose of this conference, which is to develop the PRC’s own defense technology and arms industry. One PRC source states that the conference is intended “to strengthen international and domestic exchanges and cooperation in defense technology, gain insights into the international academic frontiers in the field of defense, and … serve the innovative development of [the PRC’s] weapons industry” (SCI Lab, September 3, 2022). According to China Daily, the conference will “let China’s scientific researchers come into close contact with outstanding foreign scientists in the field of defense technology without leaving the country, conducting in-depth exchanges and study with one another, gaining insight into the international academic frontiers in the field of defense…” (China Daily, October 22, 2018). The State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (国家国防科技工业局), the government organ that oversees the PRC’s defense industrial base, has noted that these exchanges with foreign researchers will “provide forward-looking aid and far-reaching impact on the future development of [the PRC’s] national defense science and technology” (SASTIND, October 26, 2022).

The subjects discussed at the conference apparently include every hot topic under the sun regarding military technology. The most recent conference in 2022 featured sessions on hypersonic technology, directed energy, advanced materials, advanced launch technology, autonomous control, munition impact and armor, intelligent sensing, and advanced manufacturing (BIT, August 23, 2022). Specific topics of interest have included artillery design, warhead technology, intelligent UAV swarm networking, 3D printing of explosives, and bionic and exoskeleton robots (ICDT, March 20).

Western Participation Assists PLA Research

Conference presenters in recent years have come from a number of Western institutions. These include: a researcher from Australia’s University of New South Wales who presented on autonomous navigation for surveillance and communication UAVs; a researcher from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom presenting on dynamic damage to composite materials; a researcher from the Polish Military Institute of Armor Technology presenting on passive, reactive, and hybrid armors; a researcher from the Polytechnic University of Milan presenting on solid rocket propulsion ingredients; and a researcher from the French state-owned defense company Nexter Munitions presenting on armor-piercing munitions (CUP, May 4, 2018; ICDT, accessed February 5). At least one presenter has received funding from the US Air Force (ICDT, accessed February 5). The most recent conference also featured academic committee members from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Israel, and Italy, who did not present but were presumably involved in planning and advising (ICDT, accessed February 5).

These presenters rubbed shoulders with participating PLA researchers from the National University of Defense Technology, Naval Engineering University, and Army Engineering University, who spoke on topics like rocket engine propellants and anti-ship torpedoes, as well as scores of researchers from various PRC military companies and the Seven Sons of National Defense (SASTIND, October 26, 2018; ICDT, accessed February 5).

The 2024 conference is scheduled to take place in September in Xi’an. Little information is available at this time but, according to Professor Woodley, this year’s event will add several new topics on cutting-edge technology, including artificial intelligence, stealth, and quantum science (ICDT, accessed March 21). New sponsors and organizers include the Defense S&T Key Laboratory of Materials Technology in Impact Environments a Norinco defense lab focused on warheads, armor-piercing munitions, and armor, and Li Baoming (栗保明), the director of yet another defense lab, the Defense National Key Laboratory of Transient Physics (ICDT, accessed March 20; NJUST, accessed May 29).

While notable for its unusually blatant approach, the International Conference on Defence Technology is only one example of a common but understudied PRC tactic for gaining access to sensitive knowledge. To this end, in recent years PRC institutions with military ties have organized numerous academic conferences that are likely geared towards acquiring dual-use technology. For example, in 2021, PRC defense labs specializing in hypersonic technologies under the PLA National University of Defense Technology and Air Force Engineering University co-sponsored the International Symposium on Thermal-Fluid Dynamics with Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom (XJTU, August 9, 2021). The conference was attended by multiple American, British, Canadian, Japanese, and other European experts on hypersonic flows, aerodynamics, and combustion, where they rubbed shoulders with the many PLA researchers who were also attending.

Some of these conferences are held outside of the PRC. In 2022, the Aero-Engine Corporation of China (AECC; 中国航空发动机集团), one of the PRC’s biggest state-owned military conglomerates and the manufacturer of the PLA’s aircraft engines, co-sponsored the Forum of the Global Power & Propulsion Society (GPPS, May 2022). For this event, which was held in Zurich, AECC teamed up with an academic journal published by CASC, another large military aerospace conglomerate, as well as the Defense S&T Key Lab of Aviation Engine High-Altitude Simulation (航空发动机高空模拟技术国防科技重点实验室), which conspicuously removed the “defense” part of its name in English-language promotional materials. (Journal of Propulsion Technology, accessed May 29; GPPS, May 2022). Under the seemingly benign cover of researching cleaner engine technology, researchers came from such institutions as General Electric, the US Southwest Research Institute, Texas A&M’s Turbo Lab, Pratt & Whitney, Safran, Piaggio Aerospace, Airbus, Imperial College London, and many others (GPPS; June 22, 2022, accessed March 24).

Even if the conference was only discussing civilian research, the Key Lab noted above is a military lab with a military mission. Any useful information on creating better or more efficient aircraft engines is sure to be put to military use. Jet engines have been a chronic weak spot for the PRC’s development of both military and commercial aircraft, and thus have been a near-constant target of its espionage efforts in recent years (Business Insider, September 24, 2019; DOJ, June 9, 2016; Ars Technica, October 31, 2018; OSI, September 24, 2020; Washington Post, November 16, 2022).


Western research and academic institutions, for years apparently unaware of these dynamics, have recently become more cognizant of this reality. Still, Western researchers continue to travel to the PRC to attend conferences hosted by murky institutions with close connections to the Chinese military who are eager to pick their brains and hoover up any dual-use research. Generally, this is the result of well-meaning naivety on the part of these researchers—they are scientists, after all, not politicians or soldiers, whose work entails traveling to conferences to share their research with international colleagues. PRC military labs will often use a different name, or at least a less militant-sounding English translation of their name, when liaising with Western researchers, putting them more at ease about collaborating. However, even the most basic due diligence—oftentimes a basic online search—would make clear that these are military-affiliated institutions who almost certainly have ulterior motives.

Unlike other conferences, the International Conference on Defence Technology is very plainly an attempt to gather military technology for the benefit of the PRC’s defense industry. Even if foreign participants are determined not to share sensitive information, getting them to the PRC and into the same room with defense and intelligence officials exposes them to the possibility of being cultivated and probed for further information. This is a tactic that PRC intelligence agencies have used frequently with notable success. One asset cultivated in a recent espionage case talked about being offered a free trip to the PRC, where he was showered with money, gifts, and attention by his hosts, and of feeling “obligated” when they began asking questions about sensitive technology (Bloomberg, September 15, 2022). Judging by the frequency with which Western academics are willing to participate in such conferences, there is a clear lack of awareness and due diligence being conducted in the United States and among its allies of the risks involved in academic exchanges of this nature.