Chinese student held in Japan for exporting helicopter infrared camera through Hong Kong

The student told the police that he used the money for living costs and to cover his university fees

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 4:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 9:47pm

A Chinese exchange student is being questioned by police in Tokyo over the illegal export of an advanced infrared night vision camera to a company in China.

The 22-year-old student, who has not been named, is understood to have bought the Star Safire III camera on an internet auction site.

The equipment, which is manufactured by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. and is used extensively by the US military as a long-range thermal imager and ultra long-range spotter scope, was originally fitted in a disaster response helicopter operated by Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in Shikoku.

When the camera was replaced by an upgraded version in September 2015, a recycling company was contracted to dispose of the equipment.

Within two months, however, the camera had been bought by the Chinese student for Y550,000 (US$5,000).

He subsequently offered it to a company in Guangzhou for Y2.5 million and exported it to China through Hong Kong without obtaining the necessary permits for the transfer of sensitive technology overseas.

A new Star Safire III costs more than US$450,000, but controls on exports of sensitive technology to China have until now prevented the export of any units to China.

The student has told the police that he used the money for living costs and to cover his university fees. According to the Mainichi newspaper, he told investigators that he “cannot remember” to whom he sold the equipment.

Authorities in Japan assume that the equipment has fallen into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army or a company that sells advanced equipment to the Chinese military.

The incident has rung alarm bells in Japan, with the recycling company facing charges for falsely reporting that it had disposed of the camera appropriately and Mitsubishi Electric, which had handled the replacement of the equipment, banned for bidding on government contracts for two weeks.

It also showed that Chinese companies were still keen to get their hands on specific military-use equipment, despite the leaps that have been made in technology in recent years.

“It looks very much as if this was just a student who saw an opportunity to make a quick buck, but it does still show that Chinese firms are cherry-picking the best equipment that they still need,” said Garren Mulloy, a defence expert and an associate professor of international relations at Japan’s Daito Bunka University.

“Back in the 1980s, it was clear that China was a long way behind and wanted every and any sort of technology it could get – and Europe and the US were very happy to sell it to them.

“Britain, at one point, was very close to selling the technology behind the Harrier jump-jet to Beijing, but the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 ended that.”

China was subsequently required to “acquire by other means” restricted technology, Mulloy said, and there are numerous reports of Beijing employing espionage to gain access to the data required for advanced weapons systems.

US intelligence, for example, have determined that secrets incorporated into China’s J-20 stealth fighter were stolen from a US contractor that was involved in the development of the US Air Force’s F-35 jet fighter.

Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology reported last year that China was behind around 40 per cent of attempts to compromise Japanese information systems in the previous two years.