China’s military-civil fusion strategy, the US response & implications for India

Jan 28, 2022 03:02 PM IST

The study has been authored by Manoj Joshi

For a while now it has been clear that China is a rising power in science and technology, and this development is raising concerns around the world because of China’s assertiveness and the opaqueness of its goals. In recent years, fears have centered on a Chinese strategy called ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ (MCF) which is aimed at spurring innovation in key sectors and leveraging dual-use technologies for military end-uses. China, which has long practiced what is called Civil-Military Integration (CMI) sees MCF as a master strategy that needs to be amalgamated with other national strategies for economic development and transformation, “to achieve an organic, powerful, and comprehensive national system of strategies.” Where CMI was aimed at the civil sector supporting the military on a range of issues including logistics and technology development, MCF’s target is the leveraging of emerging and high technologies, developed for civilian use, to boost military capability. 

In recent years, fears have centered on a Chinese strategy called ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ (MCF) which is aimed at spurring innovation in key sectors and leveraging dual-use technologies for military end-uses.(AP File Photo)
In recent years, fears have centered on a Chinese strategy called ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ (MCF) which is aimed at spurring innovation in key sectors and leveraging dual-use technologies for military end-uses.(AP File Photo)

According to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, China has adopted a “whole of society” effort to achieve leadership in Artificial Intelligence (AI), new and advanced materials, and new energy technologies because they can trigger advances in other technologies with consequent economic and military gains. To be sure, there has always been a symbiotic link between civilian and military technologies in most countries. Indeed, academics and analysts such as Lewis Mumford, Seymour Melman, and David F Noble have written extensively about the centrality of the military in American industrial development. 

Historically, the US has leveraged the close relationships between its defence sector, the academia, and the private sector. There is no dearth in literature about the US military’s role, for example, in triggering the development of the civilian nuclear programme, or commercial aviation. Lesser known are Noble’s examples of how in the 1950s and 1960s, the US Air Force promoted Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines, or that the US Navy triggered the growth of containerisation in cargo handling. A generation later, as the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) changed its name to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), US military research gave birth to the internet and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. 

In a larger sense, CMI and MCF are not just about dual-use technology, but the effective military use of civilian facilities, technology, and talent. This could mean using highways as emergency airstrips, civilian transport for military logistics, or emerging and high technologies to create new weapons systems or enhance the capabilities of the older ones, or attracting civilian talent and venture capital to aid military programmes. 

Today the US’s fear is that China’s efforts are aimed at leapfrogging over them in terms of military power. The US is concerned that the Chinese-style command development—especially in critical, cutting edge emerging technologies (ETs) such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), new and advanced materials, new energy, biotechnology and quantum technology—could help China enhance its existing military weapons and create a new generation of lethal autonomous systems, hypersonic weapons, and directed energy weapons. These could threaten the US. 

There are five levels of American concerns. First, of China stealing foreign technology, demanding technology transfer from companies as a price for their entry into the country, or making strategic acquisitions of foreign companies to access their technology. Second, of using technologies acquired for civilian use for military purposes. Third, of Chinese students in US universities and academic collaborations aiding entities whose goal is to enhance China’s military development. Fourth, of Chinese investments in western technology companies and start-ups enabling them to access and control new and emerging technologies. 

Fifth, the activities of Chinese research laboratories such as those established by Baidu, Huawei, Tencent in third countries like US, Australia, India being used to enhance Chinese technology which, in turn, can be used for military purposes back home. The US now recognises that technology has become the core of US-China competition. While the US is ahead in most areas, there is no clear winner yet in certain technologies such as AI and quantum computing. 

Adopting its 14th Five-Year plan for 2021-25 in November 2021, China explored, for the first time, the development of “disruptive” technologies to close the gap with the United States. The plan seeks to “accelerate the modernization of weapons and equipment, focus on indigenous innovation in national defence science, accelerate the development of strategic forward looking disruptive technologies, and accelerate the upgrading of weapons and equipment.”

There are two aspects to military-civil fusion developments. First is the creation of the so-called new and “disruptive technologies” that could range from sixth-generation fighters, quantum radar and communications systems, hypersonic weapons, and unmanned equipment platforms—ships, aircraft, ground systems—driven by AI.

 The second is the enhancement of existing platforms by a new generation of sensors and weapons, high-energy systems like laser and rail guns, which could provide them a military edge. China has not hesitated to demonstrate how technology, originally developed for civilian use, is enhancing their military capability. In December 2017, they conducted a display of swarming through the performance of 1,108 quadcopters at an air show. In May 2018, they demonstrated a similar swarm of 56 unmanned boats. More recently, in January 2021, they advertised exoskeleton suits for use in the Himalayan border with India. They also revealed other military technology, including High Power Microwaves (HPM), laser weapons, rail guns, Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS) systems, Hypersonic vehicles, and stealth ships. Most important may yet be the earlier launch of the Micus satellite to achieve quantum communications. 

In 2017, scientists from the University of Science & Technology, CAS-Alibaba Quantum Computing Lab, Chinese Academy of Science Institute of Physics and Zhejiang University entangled 10 super conducting qubits. The building of a National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science in Anhui province was also revealed. Introduction Ideally, all countries seek to promote an integrated development of their civilian and military sectors. China’s technological advances are well-known, though they have been marred by allegations of technology theft, forced transfer, or diversion of technology and civilian know-how. 

Given the rapid build-up of the Chinese military, these innovations have generated alarm in the US. In India, however, the implications of MCF have yet to be clearly understood. It is only recently that Indian military leaders began discussing civil-military integration. India’s technology sector is not too well developed and cannot easily replicate the Chinese strategy. 

The study has been accessed by clicking here.

(The study has been authored by Manoj Joshi)


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