Interview: Peter Gill

‘Whether you like it or not, you cannot avoid China’

Four years after his appointment as Policy Advisor on China at TU Delft, Peter Gill’s work has been included in the UNL guidelines for international cooperation. “Whether you like it or not, you cannot avoid China.”

Beleidsadviseur Peter Gill leaves TU Delft. (Photo: Jos Wassink)

You will stop working as the Policy Advisor for China at TU Delft. Is the job done?

“Yes, in part. The foundation for risk management are now in place. But I do think that there is still work to be done in the area of opportunity management, which means acting on opportunities. My background in the corporate sector means that I look at this differently than a university. I did an oil and gas project in Angola, and an offshore wind project in Taiwan, despite files with hundreds of documents about risks. Universities are more cautious. But we have now reached a point where risk management is interpreted as preferably doing nothing to avoid risks.”

You wrote the China Tools at a certain point. The UNL (Universities of The Netherlands) adopted these later. Is this now the gold standard for international collaboration for universities?

“A team of people here compiled the China Tools to make sure that it included various perspectives. Then, in regard to the UNL connection (in Dutch), we worked with four other universities from Groningen, Twente, Nijmegen and Utrecht to make the guidelines country neutral. It then was not only about China, but about international collaboration in general and the name was changed to Partnering Tools. After all, knowledge security is more than just China, and China is more than just knowledge security. The Partnering Tools was disseminated by the Contact Point for Knowledge Security at the RVO (Netherlands Enterprise Agency).

The Partnering Tools classifies China as ‘high risk’. How do you see this?

“We wanted to compile a risk table on international collaborations to add to the China Tools that included countries that are on lists of sanctions, are subject to weapon embargos or countries that are named in the AIVD (General Intelligence and Security Service). There were three columns. The column on the far right in green is for those of least risk. These are European Union and NATO countries – excluding the USA and Turkey – and Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The middle column, in orange, are less of a risk than the high risk column. The USA now falls in this column because of their export regulations that extend beyond their own borders. As an example, the USA says that ASML may not supply advanced chip machines to China. And to the left, in the red column, are countries with a high risk of knowledge security.”

China is in this high risk group. But still you mostly emphasise the opportunities. How do you reconcile this?

“Over the last six months I have looked at the subjects that are of value for us and that match TU Delft’s mission of having an impact on a sustainable society, and this does not involve many risks in terms of knowledge security. I have grouped the research fields under the acronym WESH, which stands for Water, the Energy transition, Sustainability and Health. To my mind, these are areas where TU Delft can cooperate with China and that are in everyone’s interest.”

So WESH is safe?

“WESH is of course not a green light without any thought at all. It may involve subjects that bring risks to knowledge security. But in any case, we looked into the areas that fall under TU Delft’s mission. Personally, I believe that people in the Netherlands are not aware of how big China is. China’s research budget amounts to the equivalent of USD 700 billion in terms of purchasing power. Compare that to the Netherlands’ USD 20 billion which was already depleted on 13 January.

What does that mean for the Netherlands?

“Whether you like it or not, you cannot avoid China. On top of that, China handles problems very pragmatically. Take energy provision for example. They put energy security first and then sustainability. This pragmatic stance in dealing with problems may be because they have more engineers in politics. Not only is China 80 times bigger than the Netherlands in terms of population, but there are proportionately double the number of people that are taking engineering courses.”

Is it wise for TU Delft students to learn Mandarin?

“I would say yes. It is hard, but not impossible. And it gives you a pathway to their culture. You will then sometimes see things you may not expect such as 80,000 African students in China. This is one way that China is increasing its influence in the continent of Africa and it exemplified the world’s shifting relationships.”

And what is your next step?

“I give a lot of readings on my West meets East book. I am a consultant in the core team of Professor Marijk van der Wende of Utrecht University’s research project. We hope to round off a project called Changing Perspectives Towards Conditions for Sustainable EU-China Collaboration for the China Knowledge Network for the Ministries of Education, Culture and Science and Foreign Affairs at the end of the year. For now, I will just see what happens and enjoy the summer.”

Peter Gill was TU Delft’s Policy Advisor on China since 2019. Before that he worked for various companies in the Netherlands, China and Taiwan. While doing his master’s in Mechanical Engineering at TU Delft in the 1990s, he also studied Sinology at the University of Leiden. After graduating from TU Delft, he obtained his bachelor’s in Business Economics. Gill grew up in Jamaica and Curaçao and travelled to Asia when he was 15. He saw how Chinese people dominated trade in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. He started his Mechanical Engineering course at TU Delft in 1988.

Science editor Jos Wassink

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