China May Soon Surpass America on the Artificial Intelligence Battlefield

China May Soon Surpass America on the Artificial Intelligence Battlefield

Swarms of unmanned aircraft could target high-value U.S. weapons platforms.


The rapidity of recent Chinese advances in artificial intelligence indicates that the country is capable of keeping pace with, or perhaps even overtaking, the United States in this critical emerging technology. The successes of major Chinese technology companies, notably Baidu Inc., Alibaba Group and Tencent Holding Ltd.—and even a number of start-ups—have demonstrated the dynamism of these private-sector efforts in artificial intelligence. From speech recognition to self-driving cars, Chinese research is cutting edge. Although the military dimension of China’s progress in artificial intelligence has remained relatively opaque, there is also relevant research occurring in the People’s Liberation Army research institutes and the Chinese defense industry. Evidently, the PLA recognizes the disruptive potential of the varied military applications of artificial intelligence, from unmanned weapons systems to command and control. Looking forward, the PLA anticipates that the advent of artificial intelligence will fundamentally change the character of warfare, ultimately resulting in a transformation from today’s “informationized” (信息化) ways of warfare to future “intelligentized” (智能化) warfare.

The Chinese leadership has prioritized artificial intelligence at the highest levels, recognizing its expansive applications and strategic implications. The initial foundation for China’s progress in artificial intelligence was established through long-term research funded by national science and technology plans, such as the 863 Program. Notably, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–20) called for breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, which was also highlighted in the 13th Five-Year National Science and Technology Innovation Plan. The new initiatives focus on artificial intelligence and have been characterized as the “China Brain Plan” (中国脑计划), which seeks to enhance understandings of human and artificial intelligence alike. In addition, the Internet Plus and Artificial Intelligence, a three-year implementation plan for artificial intelligence (2016–18), emphasizes the development of artificial intelligence and its expansive applications, including in unmanned systems, in cyber security and for social governance. Beyond these current initiatives, the Chinese Academy of Engineering has proposed an “Artificial Intelligence 2.0 Plan,” and the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China has reportedly tasked a team of experts to draft a plan for the development of artificial intelligence through 2030. The apparent intensity of this support and funding will likely enable continued, rapid advances in artificial intelligence with dual-use applications.


China’s significant progress in artificial intelligence must be contextualized by the national strategy of civil-military integration or “military-civil fusion” (军民融合) that has become a high-level priority under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. Consequently, it is not unlikely that nominally civilian technological capabilities will eventually be utilized in a military context. For instance, An Weiping (安卫平), deputy chief of staff of the PLA’s Northern Theater Command, has highlighted the importance of deepening civil-military integration, especially for such “strategic frontier technologies” as artificial intelligence. Given this strategic approach, the boundaries between civilian and military research and development tend to blur. In a notable case, Li Deyi (李德毅) acts as the director of the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence, and he is affiliated with Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Concurrently, Li Deyi is a major general in the PLA who serves as deputy director of the Sixty-First Research Institute, under the aegis of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Equipment Development Department.

How might China’s progress in artificial intelligence translate into capabilities for the PLA? At the CMC level, the PLA has seemingly established an Intelligent Unmanned Systems and Systems of Systems Science and Technology Domain Expert Group (军委智能无人系统及体系科学技术领域专家组), which may reflect a redoubled focus on intelligent systems. To date, the PLA has started to experiment with intelligent unmanned systems and evaluate their utility in peacetime and wartime contingencies. For instance, multiple versions of an intelligent unmanned boat, the Jinghai (精海), which has the capability to navigate autonomously and intelligently avoid obstacles, have been tested. Reportedly, the Jinghai was evaluated by the PLA’s former General Armaments Department and the PLA Navy’s Equipment Department, perhaps an indication of the navy’s intentions to acquire such a system, which could be utilized for sensing and reconnaissance missions and to reinforce its presence in disputed waters. Recently, there also appear to have been significant breakthroughs in UAV swarming. At the 2016 Zhuhai Airshow, the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a prominent state-owned defense industry conglomerate, in partnership with Tsinghua University, demonstrated its progress in swarm intelligence (集群智能) with a formation of nearly seventy UAVs that operated autonomously. Future UAV swarms could serve as an asymmetric means through which to target high-value U.S. weapons platforms, including aircraft carriers. Although recent claims of progress in the incorporation of artificial intelligence into cruise missiles cannot be verified, the Chinese defense industry may have achieved at least initial progress in the “intelligentization” of missiles and evidently aspires to enhance these capabilities in the future.

Looking forward, the PLA recognizes that the realization of the myriad military applications of artificial intelligence could revolutionize warfare. Given technological trends—and especially since the third offset strategy and the success of Google’s AlphaGo—PLA strategists have predicted the advent of the “military revolution of intelligentization.” Thus far, the PLA’s initial approach to artificial intelligence has been informed by its careful examination of U.S. military initiatives, but that approach may gradually diverge as a function of the PLA’s distinctive strategic culture. Based on recent writings, PLA officers and academics recognize that artificial intelligence will cause disruptive changes to the dynamics of military operations, from intelligent weapons systems to the intelligentization of C4ISR capabilities. Notably, the CMC’s Joint Staff Department has called for the PLA to take advantage of artificial intelligence and related technologies to progress towards intelligentized command and decisionmaking in its construction of a joint operations command system. Already, an experimental project to integrate artificial intelligence into the PLA’s command and control systems has achieved initial success.

Ultimately, China’s advances in artificial intelligence could have immense strategic implications for the United States. Initially, the U.S. military possessed an undisputed advantage in the technologies associated with the second offset strategy. However, the uncertain trajectory of current U.S. defense innovation initiatives will be inherently complicated by the reality that today’s technological trends, especially in artificial intelligence, are not conducive to the preservation of such a decisive edge. The rapidity of technological diffusion has increased dramatically, and it is difficult to control, since cutting-edge research with dual-use applications increasingly occurs within the private sector. At this point, the future prospects for the PLA’s progress in intelligentization remain uncertain. Nonetheless, China evidently possesses the potential to compete with—or even leapfrog—the United States in artificial intelligence, among other critical emerging technologies. China’s rise as a major power in artificial intelligence could thus become a critical force multiplier for the PLA’s future capabilities.

Elsa Kania is an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group. Elsa is a graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), and she was a 2014–2015 Boren Scholar in Beijing, China. She has previously worked at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Department of Defense, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, and FireEye Inc.

Image: Rendering of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle. Flickr/Creative Commons