While China is becoming increasingly isolated in the geopolitical technology arms race, as the US pressures its allies to restrict cooperation with the country, one European nation appears to be leaving the door more open to its attempts at scientific collaboration.
Representatives of the Chinese Academy of Sciences — a research institution and university that’s founded and owned by the Chinese state — attended a deeptech conference in Madrid this week, to the surprise and concern of one senior EU official.
Wei Huang, a senior researcher and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told the Science for Industry deeptech conference today that his country is open for partnerships with Spanish innovators — including in areas such as flexible electronics, chips and cutting-edge materials.
Flexible electronics can be used in lots of commercial products, from mobile phones and health devices to security tags and cars, but are also key components of military electronic devices. They are expected to provide an edge on future communications and sensors for cybersecurity, command and control and reconnaissance systems.
Speaking at the conference, which showcased Spain’s deeptech startups, Wei said China wants to establish a “Carbon Valley” to rival California’s Silicon Valley, and “global cooperation is required and welcomed” to achieve that aim.
“We wish greater collaboration with Europe and especially with Spain in the future,” he added.
US pressure to restrict cooperation with China on cutting-edge technologies, especially those that may have military applications, has seen Chinese investors missing out on opportunities to invest in European startups and companies restricting exports of tech components and products to the country.
The thinking in Beijing, however, is that not all of Europe is lost and tech cooperation with some individual countries on the continent is still possible.
‘Friendliest’ country in Europe
China, which is actively investing across all deeptech areas, is trying to reduce its reliance on US innovations, but in some areas still requires foreign expertise.
The Chinese delegation had been invited to the two-day event by the Autonomous University of Madrid, which has a decade-worth of bilateral cooperation with China on flexible electronics, Wei told Sifted.
He said Spain was the “friendliest” country in Europe, adding that it has “its own foreign policy, it’s quite independent, not like the UK or Germany which follow the instructions from the US”.
“Spain is a platform to work for Chinese scientists in ways that would not be happening in Germany or the UK. With Spain it’s much easier,” especially under the left-wing coalition led by the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, he said.
Wei predicted it will become harder for startups in Europe to ignore the country’s importance on tech over the next decade, as China becomes a much bigger exporter of electronics worldwide but also a huge market for European startups looking for customers.
While research and technology thrive on international collaboration, the last decade has seen Western policymakers becoming increasingly alarmed at China’s penetration into their countries’ universities and tech companies.
The European Commission has restricted cooperation with China on sensitive technologies under Horizon Europe, the bloc’s €95bn research and innovation programme, although it maintains partnerships on environmental issues such as pollution and forest management.
At the level of EU member states, however, there’s no consensus on how cautiously countries should proceed when it comes to Chinese approaches on tech.
Some European startup founders advocate for cooperation with China, arguing this is necessary for technological progress given its fast advancements in deeptech.
Speaking at the UK’s AI Safety Summit in November 2023, Connor Leahy, founder of London-based AI safety startup Conjecture, told Sifted that Chinese researchers and state delegates appeared to be acting in good faith when it came to international collaboration.
“I’ve spoken to a professor from a Chinese university and the Chinese delegation gave a very good speech,” he said.
“My general feeling is that China is positioning itself as very interested in collaborating with the international community and international law to set up the necessary standards to build AI systems such that they will be beneficial to all of humanity.”
But one EU official tells Sifted that the Chinese “presence in force” at the Madrid event is “unusual” in the current geopolitical climate. Spanish universities have come under “huge pressure”, the official said, and although Beijing is trying hard to build tech partnerships “all over Europe”, it is finding it increasingly difficult.
“We were surprised by the level and scope of their presence, given the strategic nature for Europe of many of the innovations discussed here,” they added.
Showing a presentation slide that read “key materials, processing technologies and basic components have long been monopolised by foreign entities”, Wei said China is “catching up fast” on deeptech and willing to challenge the “domination” of “developed countries”.
Wei is also a chair professor of China’s “Recruitment Program of Global Talents”, and extended “an invitation to anyone wishing to make breakthroughs” in these strategically important technologies to go to the country.
The programme targets academics and tech startup talent, who are offered travel and accommodation expenses to visit China and cooperate with colleagues there. The talent programme hasn’t yet received many Spanish applicants, Wei says, partly due to the lack of Mandarin language skills in Spain.
US and UK intelligence agencies have warned against China’s efforts to recruit researchers and innovators, pointing out that they might be veiled attempts to access trade secrets, break export control laws or steal intellectual property from Western universities, research institutes and tech startups.
Last summer, the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees the work of Britain’s intelligence community, said China is “engaged in a battle for technological supremacy with the West” and is targeting IP held by Western companies and universities to “bypass costly and time-consuming research, development and training.”
“There’s a fundamental difference between pursuing dialogue and engagement in strategic areas in which safeguards are robust, and resuming knowledge exchange in areas of high sensitivity to [national security] resilience where we know Beijing has a profound interest,” said Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy and UK resilience at the London-based Policy Exchange think tank.
“It is a wilful naivety of the highest levels to believe that there is any meaningful separation between civilian and military technology acquisition in China, or that the Western understanding of academic freedom is respected by the Chinese Communist Party,” she added.
Sifted approached the Chinese embassy for comment.