The Chinese military is aiming to utilize cutting-edge technologies like private sector-developed artificial intelligence to enhance its offensive capability in domains such as cyberspace and outer space, a Japanese Defense Ministry think tank warned Friday. Beijing aspires to match the United States' overall military capacity by transforming its People's Liberation Army into a world-class fighting force with the help of advanced technologies, the National Institute for Defense Studies said in its annual report on China's security strategy. The report said that until the Chinese catch up with the American military, "the PLA will build up its interference and strike capabilities to prevent the United States' military use of both the cyber and space domains." The China Security Report 2021 was released as the rivalry between Washington and Beijing has been intensifying, as has competition for technological hegemony. The United States has restricted exports of semiconductors to Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese telecom giant that is aiming to expand its dominance of next-generation 5G technology.
The Chinese government has continued to enhance its military capabilities and in recent years, it has steadily invested to transform the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a true world-class fighting force. Earlier this year, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) became the largest naval force in the world, and China has steadily been working to develop cutting edge aircraft, missiles and even small arms. Another area where Beijing has focused is in cyber warfare, and last month, the National Security Agency (NSA) issued a cybersecurity advisory that warned of Chinese state-sponsored activities targeting American companies, including those that work closely with the U.S. government. The PLA had even operated a special unit, known as PLA Unit 61398, which was believed to have conducted a series of cyber attacks against western companies at the behest of Beijing. In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) announced that a Federal grand jury returned an indictment of five 61398 officers for the theft of confidential business information and intellectual property from U.S. commercial firms.
China may lag behind the US military on metrics like the number of aircraft carriers it has, but it may be able to seize a "leapfrog opportunity" and invest in newer, cheaper weapons that could make carriers obsolete. Similar to how some countries never developed extensive landline infrastructure and instead skipped directly to building mobile phone networks, China is capitalizing on the opportunity to develop AI-based technology, including autonomous submarines that could confront hulking US carriers. At the same time, the United States could end up spending "too much to maintain and upgrade mature systems,'" according to one Chinese scholar quoted in the report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). The United States, China, and Russia have all stressed the importance of AI-based military technologies and are making notable investments. China is investing tens of billions of dollars in AI development, according to the CNAS report, with the government viewing it as a key strategy to "protect national security."
It is a statement that has been broadcasted and heard around the world: China intends to be the global leader of artificial intelligence by 2030. The country is putting its money where its mouth is, officials and analysts say, and making investments in AI that could threaten the United States and erode Washington's advantages in the technology. "The Chinese Communist Party recognizes the transformational power of AI," Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently said during remarks at the Defense Department's AI Symposium and Exposition. Beijing views the technology as a critical component to its future military and industrial power, said the Pentagon's recently released "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2020" annual report to Congress. The country's "Next Generation AI Development Plan" details Beijing's strategy to employ commercial and military organizations to achieve major breakthroughs by 2025 and become the world leader by 2030, the report said.
With its controversial seizure and return of a U.S. underwater drone, Beijing may have inadvertently thrust into the spotlight one of the main motivations behind its ramped-up moves in the South China Sea: the quest to create a safe-haven for its sea-based nuclear deterrent. Submarines, in particular ballistic missile subs, have long figured prominently in China's desire to match the capabilities and prestige of other major nuclear powers. Slowly but surely, experts say, Beijing has made progress on this front, building a formidable program that began very early in the ruling Communist Party's history. But securing the credibility of its overall nuclear deterrent has been a challenge. "In particular, experts worry that growing U.S. missile defense, conventional precision strike, and space-based surveillance capability together allow for sophisticated preemptive attacks that pose a significant threat to China's land-based nuclear forces," Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, wrote in a June report on China's sea-based nuclear deterrent.