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China Prioritizes 3 Strategic Technologies in Its Great Power Competition – The Diplomat

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China recently reconstituted its Ministry of Science and Technology and created a powerful Central Science and Technology Commission in order to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has more direct oversight over the ministry. This change, which was recommended by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, recognizes that technology competition with the United States requires direct supervision from the highest level of the party.

This reorganization was carried out during the “Two Sessions,” annual meetings of National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) held in Beijing in March of this year. This is where policy direction of the CCP becomes clear as thousands of delegates ratify institutional and personnel changes, legislate, and endorse government budgets in rather ceremonial but important meetings. Dissent is hardly allowed.

The result of endorsing the dominant role of the CCP over China’s technology development in these sessions implies the importance China’s leaders place on the sector. During the Two Sessions, Xi indicated that “enhancing integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities” is key to China’s aim of becoming a global power. In this, the development of key strategic technologies plays a vital and consequent role.

By 2049, China aims to emerge as a global leader in three strategic technologies, identified by President Xi Jinping as critical for China’s national rejuvenation: space, AI, and quantum communications and computing.

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In 2019, a white paper on defense, titled “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” issued by the State Council, highlighted the critical importance of competing in key strategic technologies to emerge as a great power. Since then, these technologies have been described as China’s “new infrastructure” or critical infrastructure, to ensure China continues its national rejuvenation – and adds to its great power advantage vis-à-vis the United States.

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This is not entirely new; science and technology development was identified as key for China to emerge as a great power as per the Comprehensive National Power (CNP) concept developed under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. As Michael Pillsbury noted back in 2000, “CNP (zonghe guoli) refers to the combined overall conditions and strengths of a country in numerous areas,” of which science and technology are perhaps amongst the top.

Given the international environment framed by the State Council as competitive, assuming leadership in these key strategic technologies has been identified as vital. Various strategies have been developed to advance China’s progress, including China’s innovation strategy, as well as “Made in China 2025” strategy. To support the development of strategic technologies, China made important changes to its Politburo and Central Committee during the 20th Party Congress last year as I have argued previously. 

So where is China today in terms of these three key strategic technologies?

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Space

China is a great power in space with its civilian programs. The country’s ambitious goals reflect this: China aims to establish a permanent base on the Moon by 2036, demonstrate a gigawatt-level power generation capability via its space-based solar power project by 2050, conduct a human Mars mission between 2033-2049, and an asteroid exploration mission by 2025.

China is also the only nation with its own independent Low Earth Orbit (LEO) space station, the Tiangong. Recently, China announced that they had successfully tested a 100 percent regeneration of oxygen supplies onboard the Tiangong space station. Bian Qiang, the director of the environmental control and life-support engineering office under the Astronaut Center of China, explained its significance, as paraphrased by China Daily: “the development reflects a fundamental transformation of the environmental control and life-support system for China’s manned spacecraft from ‘replenishment’ to ‘regeneration.’” More importantly, the system was able to regenerate 95 percent of its own water as well, which meant resupply to the space station from the ground via China’s Tianzhou cargo spacecraft would be reduced by 6 tonnes a year.

This development will also help China understand better how to develop a regenerative system for the Moon, since they have plans for a crewed mission to the Moon after 2036 and are looking to extract resources on the Moon like Helium 3 and water-ice.

China has its own independent BeiDou navigation system comprising 35 satellites; nearly 250 military satellites for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting; as well as both kinetic and non-kinetic ASAT capabilities.

In China’s 2021 white paper on its space activities, planetary defense was identified as a key mission. China’s planetary defense mission also includes the tracking of asteroids and meteorites and developing deflection technologies. Consequently, China has identified asteroid 2019 VL5, which is about 108 feet (33 meters) in diameter and orbits the Sun every 365 days, as the destination of a planetary defense mission, wherein China will launch both an observer and an impactor spacecraft in 2025. While one spacecraft will study the asteroid, the other spacecraft will collide with the asteroid to deflect it.

Wu Weiren, one of the chief scientists and architects of China’s space program, to include its lunar mission, explained that the impactor spacecraft will aim to deflect the asteroid 1 or 2 inches, which might increase to a distance of 620 miles in three months. The dual nature application is rather obvious; used for military purposes, the same technology can crash into satellites and “deflect” them.

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China is constructing a deep-space observation facility in southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality, which includes 25 radars with a 30-meter aperture, to detect asteroids over 10 million kilometers away. Called China Fuyan, this far-reaching radar system will build China’s planetary defense as well as space traffic management capabilities.

Artificial Intelligence 

In 2021, the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology issued a white paper on “Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence,” which highlights the development of AI as a critical enabler of economic development. Envisioned AI-powered technologies include a social credit system, facial recognition tech, self-driving cars, autonomous drones and airplanes, additive manufacturing, and even orbital platforms in space that can make decisions on who is an adversary based on highly intelligent generative AI. China is projected to spend around $14.7 billion in AI this year, about 10 percent of the global investment. By 2026, that figure estimated to reach about $26 billion.

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The combination of AI with military technologies can add a lethal edge to China. Two examples stand out; one in space and the other underwater.

China recently announced the development of AI-enabled satellites that can avoid space debris. Called the “New Generation of Artificial Intelligence 2022 Major Program,” supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, this project was launched by the State Key Laboratory of Astronautic Dynamics (ADL), affiliated with the Xi’an Satellite Control Center in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

According to Li Hengnian, director of the ADL, “We will take the implementation of the project as an opportunity to actively align national strategic needs and cooperate with domestic competitive units to provide strong technical support for strengthening the nation’s space traffic management and contributing to China’s building of a space power.” The framing is important to notice here: Space traffic management is viewed from a space-power perspective.

Another project that China is working on that is enabled by AI is an orbital platform consisting of CubeSats. This platform, which will be enabled by AI decision making, can be utilized to defend against attacks on Chinese space assets. Besides defense, such a platform can be used for in orbit refueling and maintenance as well. AI can be utilized to direct mission planning, timing, and the release of CubeSats that could have non-kinetic ASAT technologies.

By 2025, China plans to develop a Jilin-1 constellation of 130 satellites that will be AI enabled to deflect U.S. ASAT capabilities. The Jilin-1 project is being developed by Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) State Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics, and Physics as part of China Geospatial-Intelligence Satellite Telescope (CGST) developed with a funding of $375 million. Chinese company Head Aerospace is involved with the project. Seventy of the 138 satellites are already in orbit. With help from the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), the Jilin satellites are enabled by AI to accurately track down moving objects that can be utilized for precision intelligence gathering and targeting. It covers certain areas of Earth between 17 and 20 times each day. AI is being used to monitor and precisely guess where a target is, in case a target becomes inaccessible.

AI is also enabling unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) built by China that can identify and target adversary submarines. Exercises conducted by China in the Taiwan Strait saw the utilization of UUVs 30 feet undersea that changed course, maneuvered and attacked a dummy submarine by utilizing AI decision cycles. Onboard sonars and sensors collected data that was then utilized by AI to make a decision to attack. A strategic mapping of these technologies becomes vital amid conflict escalation in the Taiwan Strait.

Recently, China’s newly re-constituted Ministry for Science and Technology and the National Natural Science Foundation of China established the “Artificial Intelligence for Science” project amid given the competition with the United States for leadership in these technologies. The idea is to utilize AI for a cumulative integration strategy as is witnessed in the additive power of AI in space and underwater, and thereby build CNP.

AI has been identified as a key technology and industry in China’s Made in China 2025 and innovation strategy. China aims to become the global leader in AI by 2030, seven years from the reconstitution of its science and technology institutional structure.

As per reports, China is edging ahead of the United States in AI technology thanks to these efforts. China already publishes the world largest number of peer reviewed papers in AI that result in patents.

Quantum Communications and Computing

China showcased to the world its lead in quantum communications in 2017, when Chinese scientists beamed entangled photons from the world’s first quantum communication satellite, Micius, that was launched in 2016.

In June 2020, in a paper published in Nature, Pan Jianwei, member of the National Committee of the CPPCC, academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and executive vice president of the University of Science and Technology of China, showcased a secure method of quantum messaging by utilizing Micius, which moved China closer to the goal of unhackable communication capability.

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There are plans afoot to develop a quantum communication network, as per Pan. This network will utilize encryption methods and ground stations, supported by quantum computing. Pan stated, “We are cooperating with the National Space Science Center to develop a medium-high orbit satellite. In the future, the combination of high-orbit satellites and low-orbit satellites will build a wide-area quantum communication network.”

It was Pan’s team that launched the first quantum satellite for China in 2016. Pan gives China about 15 years (2038) to realize fully functional quantum computing and communications, which will depend on quantum error correction. Given that quantum communication and computing has been recognized as key critical infrastructure by China, the likelihood of realizing this is high.

The combination of space, AI, and quantum computing and communications is developing China into a great technology power. Xi, at the 20th Party Congress, stated that the development of key strategic technologies will help China emerge as the leading nation in international relations in the 21st century and will foster new growth engines. This is a continuation in the grand strategic thinking of the studies on CNP commissioned by Deng Xiaoping, which identified the development of science and technology as a key factor in China’s emergence as a great power, and superseding the United States by the 2020s.

A competition is underway for relative power, if not absolute power, between a rising China and a declining United States. This will have direct strategic implications for how the international order is constituted in the long run. China’s progress in the three strategic technologies of space, AI, and quantum makes it evident that they are on the path to global preeminence.