Recently, China convened its 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, an event that features the CCPs to leadership with an intent to adjust its constitution as it lays forth a blueprint for the country’s policies for the next five years. Xi opened the Congress affirming the nation’s need to win the race for the development of “core technologies” with the objective of becoming self-reliant in strategic technologies. Perhaps most notable was his emphasis on innovation being focused on national strategic requirements – and therefore making it clear that China’s national security was directly tied to the development of advanced information technology. He also addressed China’s “improved cyber ecology,” a nod to China’s Internet industry’s evolution during the past five years and recognition of its efforts to preserve content consistent with the Party’s principles.
This is not the first time Xi has addressed IT and cyber-enabled technologies during important speeches, an acknowledgement of the importance that they play in China’s continued ascension as an influential power in the world. In 2014, Xi intimated his vision for China when he laid forth China’s steps to become a great cyber power citing the need to be proficient at domestically developing technology, as well as an internal infrastructure and culture replete with the requisite expertise. Four years later, Xi reinforced this vision of China as a cyber power when he linked cybersecurity with national security, indicating how economic and social security are invariably intertwined and ingrained with the Internet. While these are not the only times Xi has discussed the Internet and cyber-related topics, it shows an evolution in thinking that led China to where it is today. Adding other initiatives such as increased regulation of foreign presence in China, the passage of domestic cyber laws, Beijing’s advocacy for cyber sovereignty and setting standards, Xi’s push for China to become on par with the United States extends well beyond the ability to wage information-enabled warfare in the digital space.
China has purposefully committed to competing in the advanced technology realm and views its dominance as integral to becoming a complete cyber power, and one that counterbalances the United States in what it views are key technologies that will shape the future. China has jumped on every opportunity it can, becoming a global leader in 5Gtelecommunications equipment, the primary developer of commercial drones, Internet of Things devices spurned on by its Made In China 2025 plan, and solar panel manufacturing, to name a few. While these are important, it’s China’s efforts in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, electric vehicles, and digital currency that reveal its aspirations for being all things to the world, an therefore provide a true measure of its reach and influence. Long considered a technological copycat of other technologies, China has spurned its technological advancements via a combination of government support and its own tech sector’s drive to deliver. This is entirely consistent with a 2017 Xi speech in which he drove home the point of continuing to prioritize innovation in “cutting-edge technologies, modern engineering technologies, and disruptive technologies.” Five years later it appears that China is well on its way to attaining that goal.
The United States has had some success in slowing down China via several initiatives aimed at the heart of China’s tech explosion. In 2019 and 2020, the U.S. government sanctioned Huawei, and used export bans to obstruct the company from obtaining semiconductors from U.S. chipmakers. Recent rules enacted by the United States further strengthened this measure requiring companies to apply for a license if they wanted to cell advanced computing equipment to China. In late 2021, Washington blacklisted a dozen Chinese technology companies, eight of which had an alleged role of supporting China’s military quantum computing efforts. In a further ratcheting up of pressure, in October 2022, the U.S. imposed sweeping new controls on advanced computing integrated circuits (IC) commodities that contain ICs, Indeed, others have cited their concerns with the threat posed by China’s impressive technological advances including the United Kingdom’s cyber spy chief who sees China using financial and scientific “muscle” to elbow out competitors in strategically important industries on its way to the top of the pyramid.
A recent gathering of current and former U.S. government personnel and private sector executives expressed concern that the United States had slipped and risked falling behind China in these integral technologies. The meeting ended with a report that envisioned a world in which China dominated all aspects of technology, including the Internet space. Although this presented a worst-case scenario situation, it was certainly a plausible one if China’s momentum is not hampered from gaining even more speed. The challenge before the United States is how to develop a policy plan to do just that, what that would look like, and how quickly it could be implemented across the public and private sectors. One expert maintains that China’s continued reliance of foreign firms in core technologies (e.g., semiconductors) for the foreseeable future and the United States increased controls will continue to be primary factors in contributing to China’s inability to progress into the realm of self-sufficiency in some of these technologies.
That is comforting for the present but not for the long term. China has consistently demonstrated itself to be strategic in thought, playing the long game while it makes modest advances along the way. And while the United States looks to keep its advantage now, that may not always be the case. Xi’s recent 20th Congress speech outlined efforts that would position China to endure unforeseen emergencies to preserve its national security interests. It’s this type of planning that has bolstered China’s assertiveness on the world stage, a development driven by Xi and one that shouldn’t change. Even if it can’t realize everything it wants, China does not appear to be deterred from pursuing that path regardless of sanctions, trade war, or other obstacles. A stalled China is not a stopped one.
One thing is clear: both China and the United States understand that whoever maintains the role of technological leader will not only enjoy an economic advantage, but a national security one as well. It seems that China has a cohesive strategy but falters in its ability to be technologically self-sufficient enough to make any punitive action against the United States hurt in the short term. That will steadily change, particularly if Washington doesn’t develop a uniformed position across the political-economic-military spectrums. Continued failure to do so will close the gap even further, and risks further legitimizing China as a U.S. equal in the eyes of the world.