Foreign Affairs

Universities hit out at planned export crackdown

The export of sensitive goods and technologies that could be used by foreign police or militaries will become harder under a Government proposal - but New Zealand universities are already crying foul, as Sam Sachdeva reports

The Government is planning to crack down on the export of sensitive goods and technologies that foreign police or armies could use to commit human rights abuses.

However, universities claim the changes - which seem in part designed to address concerns about China -  are “unworkable” and would have a chilling effect on academic collaboration with overseas counterparts.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has just finished a consultation process for proposed changes to “catch-all” export controls, which cover items not on a strategic goods list but that could be used by a police force, militia or armed forces in weaponry.

Under New Zealand’s current rules, those controls only apply to countries that are covered by a United Nations arms embargo. The proposals would broaden that to cover all countries, with some exemptions, and items that could be used in “activities or operations of a military or police nature”.

In a Cabinet paper from October setting out the proposals and consultation process, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said the current settings exposed New Zealand to some “security, political and reputational risk”.

In recent years, it had become clear that local companies were exporting civilian goods and technologies not on the current blacklist to countries where there was a risk they would “contribute to conflict and human rights violations by military and police forces, and could be seen as supporting repressive regimes”, or be “diverted to military uses and help to increase the military capabilities of states which are challenging the security interests of New Zealand and like-minded partners”.

Despite being one of New Zealand's largest trading partners, China is not on a list of "like-minded countries" that would secure an exemption from export control changes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The only tool currently available to Government in such situations was for officials to try to discourage the exporter from completing the transactions, Peters said.

While New Zealand’s current controls placed it in the middle of the pack when compared to the rest of the world, the proposed changes “would place us among the most effective regimes”.

The proposals include a number of carve-outs for certain low-risk goods, such as food and beverages and medical products, as well as exports for an official assistance programme provided by the Government.

Exports to “like-minded countries” such as Australia, Canada, members of the European Union, Japan and the United States would also be exempt from the permit process.

However, China is notably absent from that list, despite its extensive trade and research ties with New Zealand.

The US has in recent years tightened its own export controls to curtail what some see as the threat posed by China, while a report last year from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre raised concerns about Chinese military collaboration with foreign universities.

A Four Corners investigation in July uncovered concerns about two Australian universities with research links to technology used to track and detain Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, while last year Newsroom revealed the Security Intelligence Service had investigated a Chinese national studying electronic engineering at an Auckland university over fears his work could be used for military purposes.

'Chilling effect'

New Zealand universities have come out firing against the proposals, describing them as “unworkable” in a public submission.

“The lack of clear guidance as to what is and is not in scope of the policy creates potential for Government to be overly cautious in determining which technologies are encompassed - with a potentially ‘chilling’ impact on valuable research and knowledge sharing,” the Universities NZ submission says.

Universities NZ chief executive Chris Whelan told Newsroom the proposed changes were so broad that it would place the academic institutions in an impossible situation when it came to compliance.

While he did not believe China should be singled out as a cause for concern, Whelan acknowledged that the changes would have a particularly strong impact on academic collaborations with the country.

 “We have a lot of links with Chinese universities, we obviously teach large numbers of Chinese students, right through to PhD, research level.

“We strongly believe in free flow of information, we also are concerned that information isn't being used to create new weapons or to be abused in some way.”

“We want to take some sensible checks, but we also want to find a balance between not overreacting and ending up, you know, afraid to talk with anyone overseas because someone might be something which actually is benign.”

Despite the universities’ concerns, Whelan said they wanted to work with the Government to find a solution that was workable for both sides.

“We want to take some sensible checks, but we also want to find a balance between not overreacting and ending up, you know, afraid to talk with anyone overseas because someone might be something which actually is benign.”

Export NZ executive director Catherine Beard told Newsroom a number of businesses had approached her organisation with concerns about the Government’s plans.

“I think they do have to be careful not to create a regime which makes it very difficult to do legitimate business that’s not weaponry-related.”

Beard said the Government should consider a “trusted trader” test where New Zealand exporters with a strong track record could receive a permit for their business as a whole, rather than for each shipment.

An MFAT spokesman said New Zealand “seeks to be at the forefront of global efforts to ensure our goods, knowledge and technologies are not used to perpetrate human suffering including gender-based violence, illegal activities, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.

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