Modernizing China’s Military: Exploiting Civilian High Tech

News Analysis China has made the “aligning of civil and defense technology development” a national priority. The Chinese military is pursuing “intelligentized” (or “intelligent”) warfare. For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), this entails creating “intelligent weapons.” This includes such weapons as autonomous drones, capable of operating without human controls. It also entails automated systems for gathering and processing intelligence—both strategic and tactical—for military use. These capabilities rely heavily on so-called fourth-industrial (4IR) technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning, big data, quantum computing, and the like. China particularly values AI as a critical technology that could prove consequential to its strategic competition with the United States. The PLA believes that AI likely will be the key to surpassing the U.S. military as the world’s most capable armed force. This emphasis on the revolutionary and disruptive nature of 4IR technologies when it comes to future military advantage means that Chinese military modernization will be increasingly entwined with civilian technological innovation, since most 4IR breakthroughs—particularly in the areas of AI—are taking place in the commercial sector. This dependency on commercial technologies has, in turn, raised the importance of “military-civil fusion” (MCF). It has become an essential ingredient in Beijing’s long-term strategic effort to make China a technological superpower, in both military and civilian respects. Beijing is pursuing a two-pronged innovation approach to MCF, first, by fostering research and development in critical, commercial 4IR technologies, and then promoting the spin-off of these technologies to the military sector. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to see that MCF has intertwined military modernization with civilian technological innovation in a number of critical dual-use technology sectors, including aerospace, advanced equipment manufacturing, AI, and alternative sources of energy. MCF also “involves greater integration of military and civilian administration at all levels of government: in national defense mobilization, airspace management and civil air defense, reserve and militia forces, and border and coastal defense,” according to a report by The Jamestown Foundation. Chinese vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are seen at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, on March 27, 2021. (Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via Reuters) In 2017, Beijing created the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, a new powerful body for overseeing MCF strategy and implementation. That same year China issued the “13th 5-Year Special Plan for Science and Technology MCF Development,” which established an integrated system to conduct basic cutting-edge R&D in technologies—such as AI, advanced electronics, quantum computing, and 5G networking—in order to capture “the commanding heights” of international competition. China has laid out a particularly ambitious program for it to lead the world in AI by 2030. In July 2017, Beijing released its “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” This plan has three main strategic goals: first, to bring China’s AI sector up to the level of the global state-of-the-art; second, to achieve major breakthroughs in terms of basic AI theory by 2025; and third, by 2030, make China the global leader in AI theory, technology and application, as well as the major AI innovation center of the world. In addition, China’s Central Military Commission created a Scientific Research Steering Committee, which functions largely along the lines of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This agency is intended to fuel technological innovation and the development of advanced technologies that might have military applications. The Scientific Research Steering Committee is part of a “new ‘top-level architecture’ of China’s military technology innovation system.” Moreover, Beijing has greatly expanded funding of science and technology pertaining to 4IR technologies, particularly AI. China is building and training a new generation of AI engineers in new AI hubs, particularly through the support of “national champions” such as Huawei, Baidu, and Alibaba. Finally, it is carrying out a “centrally directed systematic plan” to extract 4IR knowledge (especially AI) from abroad through talent recruitment, technology transfer, investments, and even espionage. These initiatives and new organizations are intricately tied to the modernization of the PLA and its eventual mastery of intelligentized warfare. AI, in particular, is explicitly linked to national defense construction, security assessment, and control capabilities. Ultimately, the aim is to “inject AI” into nearly every aspect of the PLA’s table of equipment and inventory of operational systems

Modernizing China’s Military: Exploiting Civilian High Tech

News Analysis

China has made the “aligning of civil and defense technology development” a national priority.

The Chinese military is pursuing “intelligentized” (or “intelligent”) warfare. For the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), this entails creating “intelligent weapons.” This includes such weapons as autonomous drones, capable of operating without human controls. It also entails automated systems for gathering and processing intelligence—both strategic and tactical—for military use.

These capabilities rely heavily on so-called fourth-industrial (4IR) technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning, big data, quantum computing, and the like.

China particularly values AI as a critical technology that could prove consequential to its strategic competition with the United States. The PLA believes that AI likely will be the key to surpassing the U.S. military as the world’s most capable armed force.

This emphasis on the revolutionary and disruptive nature of 4IR technologies when it comes to future military advantage means that Chinese military modernization will be increasingly entwined with civilian technological innovation, since most 4IR breakthroughs—particularly in the areas of AI—are taking place in the commercial sector.

This dependency on commercial technologies has, in turn, raised the importance of “military-civil fusion” (MCF). It has become an essential ingredient in Beijing’s long-term strategic effort to make China a technological superpower, in both military and civilian respects.

Beijing is pursuing a two-pronged innovation approach to MCF, first, by fostering research and development in critical, commercial 4IR technologies, and then promoting the spin-off of these technologies to the military sector.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to see that MCF has intertwined military modernization with civilian technological innovation in a number of critical dual-use technology sectors, including aerospace, advanced equipment manufacturing, AI, and alternative sources of energy.

MCF also “involves greater integration of military and civilian administration at all levels of government: in national defense mobilization, airspace management and civil air defense, reserve and militia forces, and border and coastal defense,” according to a report by The Jamestown Foundation.

Chinese vessels at South China Sea
Chinese vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are seen at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, on March 27, 2021. (Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via Reuters)

In 2017, Beijing created the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, a new powerful body for overseeing MCF strategy and implementation.

That same year China issued the “13th 5-Year Special Plan for Science and Technology MCF Development,” which established an integrated system to conduct basic cutting-edge R&D in technologies—such as AI, advanced electronics, quantum computing, and 5G networking—in order to capture “the commanding heights” of international competition.

China has laid out a particularly ambitious program for it to lead the world in AI by 2030. In July 2017, Beijing released its “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” This plan has three main strategic goals: first, to bring China’s AI sector up to the level of the global state-of-the-art; second, to achieve major breakthroughs in terms of basic AI theory by 2025; and third, by 2030, make China the global leader in AI theory, technology and application, as well as the major AI innovation center of the world.

In addition, China’s Central Military Commission created a Scientific Research Steering Committee, which functions largely along the lines of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This agency is intended to fuel technological innovation and the development of advanced technologies that might have military applications. The Scientific Research Steering Committee is part of a “new ‘top-level architecture’ of China’s military technology innovation system.”

Moreover, Beijing has greatly expanded funding of science and technology pertaining to 4IR technologies, particularly AI. China is building and training a new generation of AI engineers in new AI hubs, particularly through the support of “national champions” such as Huawei, Baidu, and Alibaba. Finally, it is carrying out a “centrally directed systematic plan” to extract 4IR knowledge (especially AI) from abroad through talent recruitment, technology transfer, investments, and even espionage.

These initiatives and new organizations are intricately tied to the modernization of the PLA and its eventual mastery of intelligentized warfare. AI, in particular, is explicitly linked to national defense construction, security assessment, and control capabilities. Ultimately, the aim is to “inject AI” into nearly every aspect of the PLA’s table of equipment and inventory of operational systems.

China is only at the beginning of an arduous, multi-year (multi-decade, even) effort to harness commercial high technologies for the technological advancement of the PLA. The barriers to the widespread development and diffusion of many 4IR technologies to the military sector remain high. There is no certainty that Xi Jinping’s MCF initiatives will work any better than early civil-military integration (CMI) efforts.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Xi, the Chinese Communist Party, and the PLA will walk away from the 4IR or the MCF anytime soon, even if they do experience setbacks. Beijing particularly believes that advances in AI will fundamentally reshape military and economic competition in the coming decades, and it is shaping its long-term plans accordingly. In particular, it is providing “significant” government subsidies to tech firms and academic institutions that engage in cutting-edge AI research.

Moreover, Xi’s “personal legitimacy” is increasingly tied to the success or failure of MCF. Since Xi ascended to power in 2012, military-civil fusion has been part of nearly every major strategic initiative. MCF is categorically entwined with “long-term Party planning” and “Party consensus,” and any move to “de-intensify” MCF would come at a great cost to Xi’s authority.

Consequently, Beijing’s long-term ambitions for exploiting civilian high tech should not be underestimated, and its subsequent embrace of MCF will continue to serve as a guiding principle for its long-term strategy of parallel economic development and military modernization.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.