China’s quest for techno-military supremacy

8 March 2018

BY ADAM NI

Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to transform China’s military into the world’s most powerful force by 2050. And he could be on track to do it.

On the opening day of its National People’s Congress in Beijing yesterday, China reported a defence budget of ¥1.11 trillion ($A225 billion) for 2018. That represents an 8.1% increase in its defence budget, compared to a 7% increase last year.

China’s military has modernised rapidly in recent years. Since January alone it has demonstrated new capabilities in stealth fighter jets, drones, naval ships and advanced missiles.

Chinese scientists are also working to develop revolutionary technologies that would change the way wars are fought – and the way we live.

Challenging US military might

While China still lags the US in overall technological capability, it has narrowed the gap substantially. In the coming decades, it is poised to challenge US technological supremacy in key fields such as artificial intelligence, supercomputing and quantum information science.

What explains China’s rise as a technological power?

First, it has leveraged the innovation of other countries via technology transfers, and the acquisition of foreign companies and talent. It has also been reverse-engineering Western technology, and conducting state-sponsored industrial espionage.

According to one security analysis, between 2006 and 2013 the Chinese military stole confidential data from more than 140 organisations around the world. The problem was so serious that in May 2014, the US Department of Justice indicted five Chinese military hackers for cyber-espionage activities against US companies.

Second, China has been able to mobilise resources for priority technology sectors and research and development (R&D) projects in a way that many democracies are simply unable to do because of the limits of government power or popular mandate. Large state subsidies, government R&D funding, tailored regulations, market barriers and lax individual rights (such as privacy) protection have given Chinese domestic companies an edge over their foreign competitors.

A good example of this is the rise of China’s internet sector to global prominence, as represented by giants such as Tencent and Alibaba.

Finally, China has substantially increased its R&D expenditure in recent years. From 2012 to 2017, China’s annual R&D spending rose 70.9% to ¥1.76 trillion ($A356 billion). The US National Science Board expects China to surpass the US in R&D investment, in purchasing power terms, by the end of this year.

China’s new superweapons

Here are a few examples of how China is making rapid progress in high-tech fields with military applications.

Hypersonic technology

Hypersonic technology could one day allow us to travel from Beijing to New York in about two hours, rather than the 13 hours it currently takes. China is developing a hypersonic glide vehicle known as DF-ZF to make its nuclear and non-nuclear missiles extremely fast, manoeuvrable and capable of defeating existing missile defence systems.

To support this effort, China is building the world’s most advanced hypersonic wind tunnel for testing the extreme conditions of supersonic flight. While an operational hypersonic missile is still years away, once developed it would be a formidable weapon. It could also have a destabilising effect on strategic relations between China and other powers by compressing the time window for decision-making in a conflict or crisis situation.

To read the full article by Adam Ni, visit The Conversation’s website.

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