Artificial Intelligence and Chinese Power

Beijing's Push for a Smart Military—and How to Respond

Chinese soldiers before a military parade in Beijing, September 2015. cnsphoto / REUTERS

The United States’ technological sophistication has long supported its military predominance. In the 1990s, the U.S. military started to hold an uncontested advantage over its adversaries in the technologies of information-age warfare—from stealth and precision weapons to high-tech sensors and command-and-control systems. Those technologies remain critical to its forces today.

For years, China has closely watched the United States’ progress, developing asymmetric tools—including space, cyber, and electronic capabilities—that exploit the U.S. military’s vulnerabilities. Today, however, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is pursuing innovations in many of the same emerging technologies that the U.S. military has itself prioritized. Artificial intelligence is chief among these.

In the decades ahead, AI could transform warfare, creating disruptive new capabilities and changing the ways that militaries command, train, and deploy their forces. Those changes will shape the military balance among the world’s great powers.  

For now, the United States remains the world’s leader in AI, thanks mostly to the dynamism of its private sector. But China seeks to surpass the United States, and it may be close to doing so. The Chinese leadership has started to prioritize AI at the highest levels. In July, Beijing released the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, articulating an ambitious agenda to “lead the world” in artificial intelligence by 2030. It is backing up that commitment with deep funding for cutting-edge AI research. As China advances in the field, the United States will face the challenge of a new kind of peer competitor.

An unmanned drone during a flight near Palmdale, California, May 2013. Northrop Grumman / Bob Brown / Handout via Reuters


By most measures, China is already an AI powerhouse. China produces more AI-related patent applications than any other country except for the United States, and Chinese scholars have already published more papers on AI than their American peers. But the country’s ascendance in AI is not a matter of quantity alone. In 2017, the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence accepted as many papers from Chinese as from American researchers

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