In the backdrop of China’s trade and technology rivalry with the United States (US), its president Xi Jinping summoned leaders of China’s artificial intelligence (AI) and strategic industries to a meeting on July 21, and asked them to align their business strategies with China’s needs in the greater interest of the country.
After Xi unveiled his grand ambition of making China a world leader in emerging technologies in 2013, the Chinese government has poured billions of dollars to develop commercial and military applications of AI, 5G, new materials, energy platforms, quantum computing and financial technologies. Its progress has been aided by its civil-military fusion policy, under which ministries and armed forces work together with State-owned and private companies, with the State directing resources in priority areas, without any competition from foreign companies. Several experts say that China has made considerable progress in domains such as smart cities, smart manufacturing, surveillance, semi-autonomous vehicles and hypersonic weapons. In e-commerce, financial technologies, new energy platforms, China is viewed as a world leader. In June 2020, China launched its final satellite to complete its Baidou navigation system, thus becoming a true space power. According to a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (2018), China is trying to integrate AI and big data into unmanned aerial vehicles, drone swarms and cyber systems in order to achieve “brain supremacy” (ability to damage cognition of the enemy).
Huawei’s emergence as the largest maker of telecom equipment and second largest vendor of smartphones in the world is well known. China has also emerged as the largest manufacturer and exporter of electric vehicles, batteries and solar panels. It accounts for 70% of commercial drone-manufacturing exporting to more than 70 countries and has developed variants of the US’s MQ-1 Predator drones with reconnaissance, command, control, communications and integrated precision-strike capabilities.
Though China has excelled in many areas, it is still dependent on foreign companies for cutting-edge technologies. Huawei’s reigning supremacy may well end as the US sanctions on the supply of microchip Kirin (system on chip) start kicking in. Despite huge investments over the last 30 years, China remains dependent on American, South Korean and Taiwanese companies for the supply of microchips and semiconductors which are a prerequisite in the AI industry. Similarly, China’s record in making its own engine for long-range aircraft is disappointing. Its homemade WS-15 engine for J-20 stealth fighter aircraft exploded in a ground running test in 2015, and it has started manufacturing the J-20 using the old Russian AL-31 engine which lacks the thrust vector control necessary for a 5th generation aircraft. Ditto, its inability to make high-grade carbon for its stealth aircraft or miniaturise the nuclear reactor for its aircraft carriers.
In many instances, China has acquired advanced technologies from the West by forcing its companies to part with them in exchange for market access or by stealing and copying foreign designs. A basic lacuna in China’s approach is low expenditure in basic sciences and fundamental research, which has remained 5% of its overall research and development expenditure (as against 25-30% in developed countries) and shortage of skilled personnel. Also, the environment for innovation has deteriorated with authoritarian and expansionist policies being pursued by the Xi regime, which is damaging global chains, essential for research and collaboration.
India has taken some incipient steps to induct AI into civilian and military domains by establishing the required policy framework and promoting research and applications with collaboration among our defence establishments and industry. In some cases, drones, smart weaponry and other hi-tech military equipment have been imported from the US, Russia, France and Israel. There is urgent need to prioritise the resources in development of AI platforms, necessary for civilian and military applications, to ensure that India does not fall behind more in relative power matrix with China.
Yogesh Gupta is a former ambassador who writes on China-related issues
The views expressed are personal