Chinese Military Innovation, with American Characteristics?
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
The recent trajectory of Chinese military innovation has been impelled and inspired by mimicry of and reaction against U.S. initiatives.
The U.S. Third Offset strategy, launched in 2014, provoked intense concern among Chinese military leaders and strategists, up to the level of Xi Jinping himself. In December 2014, he warned: “A new technological and industrial revolution is brewing, a global revolution in military affairs is accelerating, and the pattern of international military competition is experiencing historic changes. The United States is the leader of the pack in this revolution in military affairs, and in many areas it holds the initiative, and it is also striving to gain new advantages in military technology..." The potential for the U.S. to achieve disruptive advances in its military capabilities, placing the PLA again in a position of clear inferiority, has catalyzed a renewed prioritization of military innovation.
Xi Jinping has argued that this new 'RMA' is a challenge and an opportunity for the PLA to "as quickly as possible narrow the gap and achieve a new leap forward." For much of its recent history, China has been a fast follower, seeking to catch up with U.S. military and technological capabilities, but increasingly China is emerging as true leader in new frontiers of science, from biotechnology to artificial intelligence to quantum technologies, aspiring to advance true, pioneering innovation. In this current stage of military revolution, the U.S. and China are starting closer to the same position, confronting disruption from emerging technologies for which dynamic enterprises are the major engine of innovation. In response, the U.S. Department of Defense has pursued deeper partnership with the private sector, including through launching DIUx, which now has locations in Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin. Similarly, Chinese leaders recognize the importance of leveraging critical synergies between commercial technologies and their potential defense applications, often looking to and learning from the history and recent trajectory of of U.S. defense technological developments.
Although the concept of civil-military integration or military-civil fusion (军民结合 or 军民融合) has a long history in China, this approach has taken on renewed relevance as the PLA prepares to confront the acceleration of this RMA. To support military innovation, Xi Jinping has called for China to follow "the road of military-civil fusion-style innovation," such that military innovation is integrated into China's national innovation system. Within the past several years, military-civil fusion (军民融合) has been elevated to the level of national strategy, guided by of the Central Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission (中央军民融合发展委员会), which was established in January 2017 under the leadership of Xi Jinping himself. This concept is recognized as particularly impactful in the context of dual-use emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence.
There are indications of initial experimentation in Chinese defense innovation that may seek to mimic and adapt elements of the U.S. approach. Here are a few examples:
Partnering with Academia— In June 2017, Tsinghua University announced its plans to establish the Military-Civil Fusion National Defense Peak Technologies Laboratory (清华大学军民融合国防尖端技术实验室) that will create a platform for the pursuit of dual-use applications of emerging technologies, particularly artificial intelligence.
DARPA-style competitions— In April 2018, the PLA Air Force announced further details about an upcoming competition, organized in collaboration with CETC, Tsinghua University, and the Beijing Institute of Technology. This “Unmanned Warfront” Intelligent UAV Swarm System Challenge ("无人争锋”智能无人机集群系统挑战赛) is open to not only military scientific research institutes but also universities, private enterprises, and even drone enthusiasts. The technology of the winning participants, who will compete with fully autonomous swarms to undertake tasks including cooperative reconnaissance and target identification, will be given priority for future PLAAF projects.
A DIUx with Chinese characteristics?— In March 2018, China’s first “defense science and technology innovation rapid response small group” (国防科技创新快速响应小组) was launched by the CMC Science and Technology Commission, characterized on occasion as a would-be DARPA, in Shenzhen. The establishment of this new mechanism is intended to “promote the integration of military and civilian developments in the domain of science and technology, and to use advanced commercial technologies to serve the military.” This first team will leverage “the innovation advantages of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone to rapidly respond to the needs of national defense science and technology innovation through various forms and accumulate experience in promoting the formation of a flexible and highly efficient defense technology innovation value chain.” The priority fields highlighted for this program include artificial intelligence, biology, networking, materials, and manufacturing.