Understanding China’s AI Strategy
China’s views, strategies, and prospects for A.I. in the areas of economics and national security will play a significant role in world politics and U.S. foreign relations. It is important, therefore, to work to understand them, without overgeneralizing, to the greatest extent possible, as these understands are essential for informing strong national policies. A powerful analytical document from the Center for a New American Security provides essential information and answers key questions on the topic. Here are the big picture takeaways:
First, What are the Chinese views on the importance of AI? Broadly speaking, “China’s leadership…believes that being at the forefront in AI technology is critical to the future of global military and economic power competition.” Furthermore, they believe “that China should pursue global leadership in AI technology and reduce its vulnerable dependence on imports of international technology.” The implications of these views include China’s concern surrounding the potential for “arms race dynamics” between AI competitors, driving a need for norms and even arms controls. In spite of this outlook, the country is also aggressively pursuing and implementing options that escalate the problem, including the export of autonomous platforms and surveillance technologies. Supporting these techs, the Ministry of National Defense has “established two major new research organizations focused on AI and unmanned systems under the National University of Defense Technology,” which it hopes to use to harness AI as a military “leapfrog development opportunity” to give it a competitive advantage over the U.S. and other countries.
And what does China think about the strengths and weaknesses of it’s developing AI ecosystem? The “government and industry believe that they have largely closed the gap with the United States in both AI R&D and commercial AI products. China now sees AI as ‘a race of two giants,’ between itself and the United States.” This position has made possible by “access to international markets, technology, and research collaboration.” This last reason is also a weaknesses caused by lower access to “top talent, technical standards, software platforms, and semiconductors,” compared to the U.S. While some have predicted this could lead to a “Soviet-style stagnation,” China is pursuing to remedy these weaknesses, unlike the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s. Macroeconomic factors and the popping of a financial market bubble, however, remain risks to their efforts.
What kind of goals accompany these understandings and perceptions? In the short term, China is working to preserve access to foreign technology while working to reduce this reliance in the longterm. This longterm goal is already progressing as the country expands market shares in important related sectors (smartphone supply chain, advanced semiconductor design, etc.).
Lastly, why the inclusion and emphasis on semiconductors when discussing AI? Because “the future focus of strategic national AI competition is likely to be the semiconductor industry…[where] the cutting edge of AI technology increasingly depends on custom computer chips.” China’s position in the AI-specific chip semiconductor market is strong, and where it is weak, the government is working actively to close gaps. As the U.S. and its allies work to advance the realm of A.I. and limit its potential threats to the international order, it is important to remember that this will not take place in a vacuum, and that actors like China will play a leading role development, potentially in destabilizing directions.