China is the United States’ strongest competitor in cutting edge military technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, according to a US report.
But security experts said the location of a conflict remained a major constraint for China to exercise its power as the nation’s advantages diminished the further from China’s shores that its military operated.
A report, titled “Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress” and done by the US Congressional Research Service, said the US was the leader in developing many of the advanced technologies. However, China and Russia were making steady progress in developing advanced military technologies.
“China is widely viewed as the United States’ closest competitor in the international AI market … Recent Chinese achievements in the field demonstrate China’s potential to realise its goals for AI development … Such technologies could be used to counter espionage and aid military targeting,” said the report which was released in early August.
While the US was not known to be developing lethal autonomous weapons, some Chinese manufacturers had advertised their weapons as having the ability to select and engage targets autonomously, the report said.
And in the hypersonic weapons field, the US is unlikely to field an operational hypersonic weapon before 2023, but China has already developed the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear hypersonic glide vehicle, according to the report.
“China has increasingly prioritised quantum technology research within its development plans … China is already a world leader in quantum technology,” the report said.
China has been pouring millions of dollars into researching and developing future warfare technologies for years, at a time when the US Trump administration had reined in spending.
Data from China’s “two sessions” this year showed that the central government would cut spending on science and technology 9 per cent because of the coronavirus pandemic, but local governments would increase their investment to ensure growth in overall public expenditure on research and development of more than 3 per cent.
China’s technological innovation contributed nearly 60 per cent to the nation’s economic growth last year, according to the science ministry.
Between 1997 and 2017, China’s share of the global research and engineering budget grew from 3 per cent to 27 per cent, according to a report by a data analytics firm Govini released in January.
Timothy Heath, a senior international defence research analyst at US think tank Rand, said although China had made impressive gains in improving the technological quality of its armed forces, it was hard to say that the Chinese military had surpassed the US military.
“Superior military technology could make the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] an even more formidable foe for the US military. The current US strategy … is to rely on superior technological and qualitative advantage to compensate for quantitative inferiority. If China could achieve parity in the quality of its technology, this would make the PLA an even greater challenge to the US military,” Heath said.
However, China’s advantages diminished the further from China’s shores the PLA operated, Heath said.
“For most South China Sea scenarios, such as near the Spratly Islands, the PLA would probably be quickly and easily overwhelmed by an intervening US naval and air force if it operated from a carrier battle group or from the Philippines,” he said.
Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the days of China lagging well behind the US in military technology were long gone.
“In many areas they [China] are equivalent, and in some areas, they are surpassing the US, such as hypersonics, AI and quantum tech. They have established an extensive network of defence technology centres that feed the PLA’s capability development towards being an ‘informatised’ and ‘intelligentised’ military for the 21st century,” he said.
While China might be in a disadvantageous position with conventional weapons, China could make up for this by outproducing items, especially in terms of naval capabilities, Davis said.
“In quantitative terms, the PLA Navy is surging past the US Navy and fast closing the gap in many areas in qualitative terms,” said Davis, adding that given present circumstances, there was no guarantee that the US and its allies would emerge the winner in a conflict with China.
Zhou Chenming, a Beijing based military expert, said technological advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing did not necessarily need to be applied to the military sphere.
“Research and development in these two areas can generate benefits to many other fields. AI can help process data in large amounts while quantum computing can make data safer. It’s narrow-minded to only focus on the benefits to military aspects,” said Zhou.
Over the past two years, friction between China and the US– both nuclear armed and with two of the world’s biggest armies – have ranged from trade disputes to human rights, technology theft, Taiwan and control of the South China Sea. And it has led to increased speculation the shouting match between the global adversaries could turn into a shooting war, one that will drag in other countries.