China Is On a Whole-of-Nation Push for AI. The US Must Match It

Liu zishan/

Beijing is harnessing government and commercial entities in pursuit of a once-in-a-generation technological kingmaker.

China has made no secret of its ambitions to lead the world in artificial intelligence, nor of the military and geopolitical advantage it hopes to gain from this rapidly advancing technology. A closer look at Beijing’s whole-of-nation AI strategy shows the challenge to the United States — and suggests what America must do lest it be eclipsed in this latest round of great-power competition.

China’s vision came into focus over the summer with the release of the New Generation AI Development Plan, which articulates an ambitious agenda to “lead the world” in the field. Chinese leaders, no longer content to copy Western technologies, are aiming to become the world’s “premier AI innovation center,” advancing an “innovation-driven” strategy for civilian and military development.

The implementation of this agenda will be a whole-of-government endeavor involving 15 central agencies and a growing number of local governments. Their efforts will foster the growth of a robust AI industry and ecosystem and pour billions into longer-term research and development of next-generation technologies. The plan will tap the dynamism of national tech champions, such as Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and iFlytek, that have been leading China’s AI revolution.

Under the national strategy of “military-civil fusion,” their breakthroughs can also be put to military use.

It is telling that the agencies responsible for the plan include the Central Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission and both the Equipment Development Department and Science and Technology Commission of the Central Military Commission, or CMC. The strategic advisory committee responsible for supporting the new plan’s implementation also includes several PLA civilians (in uniform). And China’s AI agenda has the very highest support, in the country’s leader — and CMC Chairman — Xi Jinping, who has urged his country to advance military innovation and highlighted the strategic significance of AI.

PLA thinkers expect AI to reshape the character of war itself, from today’s “informatized” (信息化) ways of warfare into “intelligentized” (智能化) warfare, in which AI is critical. According to Lt. Gen. Liu Guozhi, who leads the CMC Science and Technology Commission, AI could accelerate military transformation, reshaping military units’ programming, operational styles, equipment systems, and models of combat power generation, ultimately leading to a profound military revolution. He warns, “facing disruptive technology, [we] must…seize the opportunity to change paradigms. If you don’t disrupt, you’ll be disrupted!” So the PLA is pursuing intelligent and autonomous unmanned systems; AI-enabled data fusion, information processing, and intelligence analysis; war-gaming, simulation, and training; defense, offense, and command in information warfare; and intelligent support to command decision-making, among other applications. In particular, the CMC Joint Staff Department has called for the PLAto leverage the “tremendous potential” of AI in planning, decision support, and operational command. This fall, in his report at the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping himself called for the acceleration of this agenda of military “intelligentization.”

Given this high-level focus on defense and military innovation, the PLA is funding and the Chinese defense industry is pursuing a range of research and development, while Chinese defense academics start to explore and experiment with new potential concepts, including through war-gaming. As AI and robotics start to become more pervasive on the future battlefield, certain PLAthinkers even anticipate the approach of a battlefield “singularity.” At such a point, human cognition might no longer be able to keep pace with the speed of decision and tempo of combat. That could require that humans no longer remain directly “in the loop” but instead shift to command and supervisory roles. Certainly, current limitations in the capabilities of AI systems may preclude higher degrees of autonomy and automation for the time being, but there will be missions and contexts in which they are desirable or imperative. This is already is the case in air and missile defense and could soon be for cyber operations.

Although there have been predictions and expectations that authoritarian regimes may opt for fully automated approaches, while neglecting the human factor, PLA thinkers have, in fact, highlighted the importance of human-machine collaboration and manned-unmanned teaming. Lt. Gen. Liu has even anticipated that human-machine hybrid intelligence will be the highest form of future intelligence. The PLA could also be unwilling to remove humans from key aspects of command decision-making because of the preference for centralized authority and concerns over controllability. Concurrently, the PLA could face considerable human challenges in its introduction of such new, highly complex systems.

At this point, the future trajectory of U.S.-China strategic competition in AIremains uncertain. However, it is clear that the U.S. military must recognize the PLA’s emergence as a true peer competitor and reevaluate the nature of U.S.-China military technological competition accordingly. As the PLAattempts to overtake, rather than just catch up with or match, U.S. progress in these emerging capabilities, it will be vital to understand and take into account the PLA’s evolving approach and advances. For instance, since the locus of innovation has shifted to the private sector in these emerging technologies, China’s implementation of military-civil fusion in AI could provide the PLA a structural advantage in rapidly adapting the latest advances for military purposes.

U.S. competitive strategy and defense innovation initiatives should be informed by a more nuanced understanding of the PLA’s strategic thinking on and development of military applications of AI. The U.S. military should also continue to explore the risks and advantages of developing “counter-AI” capabilities. While seeking to develop appropriate concepts of operations for the AIrevolution, the U.S. military must also focus on leveraging its enduring advantage in the human element of military power. This remains vital and faces even more complex challenges in an age of automation and autonomous systems.

The future trajectory of U.S. defense and military innovation will depend upon a closer partnership with the private sector and the pursuit of long-term strategies to increase national competitiveness in AI, especially boosting spending on research and education. U.S.-China military and strategic competition could turn on their relative success in using this disruptive technology to increase national power and military capabilities.