Strategic Innovation and Great Power Competition

Strategic Innovation and Great Power Competition
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At this time of disruptive transitions, the new U.S. National Defense Strategy rightly recognizes that the character of warfare is changing due to the advent of a range of disruptive technologies.[1,2] In particular, the strategy highlights rapid advances in advanced computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology, which are characterized as “the very technologies that ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.”[3] The emergence of and unique convergences among these technologies could transform current paradigms of military power in uncertain, unpredictable ways. In addition, since commercial developments have been a primary driver of recent progress in many of these disparate technologies, the diffusion of advances will occur much more quickly and prove difficult to constrain, especially with the free exchange of ideas and talent across borders. In recent history, military-technical advantage has been a key pillar of U.S. military predominance. However, today’s trends, including China’s rapid emergence as a scientific powerhouse, seem unlikely to allow for the U.S. or perhaps any actor to achieve uncontested edge, and poor policy choices could lead to disadvantage.


As the U.S. starts to prioritize long-term strategic competition with China and Russia, military innovation is emerging as a new frontier for great power rivalry. The National Defense Strategy is striking in its characterization of China as a revisionist power whose military modernization agenda seeks “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”[4] This could be the start of a historic shift in U.S. strategic orientation, in response to a historic challenge. The future of U.S. military competitiveness will depend upon the ability to remain a leader in innovation in these critical technologies through a national surge in science, while also building upon perhaps more enduring advantages in talent and training to advance innovation in concepts of operations.

It is notable that China has emerged as a technological powerhouse with ambitions to take the lead in each of the emerging technologies highlighted in the National Defense Strategy. China has achieved dominance in supercomputing with the world’s top two fastest supercomputers, the Sunway TaihuLight and the Tianhe-2.[5] Concurrently, China is pursuing a national big data strategy pursuant to its focus on building a dynamic digital economy as well as for defense purposes.[6] As artificial intelligence has emerged as a priority at the highest levels, China is advancing an all-of-nation strategy to advance next-generation AI development for commercial and military applications, seeking to emerge as the world’s “premier AI innovation center” by 2030.[7] While actively pursuing military robotics, Chinese research and development is also enabling higher levels of autonomy in unmanned (i.e., uninhabited) systems.[8,9] The Chinese defense industry is progressing in the development of directed energy weapons, including lasers, railguns, and high-power microwave weapons.[10] The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has invested in hypersonic flight vehicles and scramjet engines, recently testing the DF-17, a ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic flight vehicle.[11,12] Concurrently, China has invested billions in biotechnology and genomics with a focus on precision medicine.[13] Although the U.S. National Defense Strategy does not explicitly include quantum science, it is also clear that China aspires to lead in quantum technologies that could have transformative implications, emerging as a world leader in quantum cryptography and communications, catching up in the race for quantum computing, and progressing in quantum metrology and sensing.[14]

China’s trajectory and ambitions to become a true “science and technology superpower” (科技强国)—have been advanced through a state-driven model of innovation.[15] This agenda to transform into a “nation of innovation” involves long-term planning targeted to strategic objectives with high levels of funding and investments for research and development, along with attempts to foster a more dynamic startup ecosystem.[16] In the tradition of Chinese “technonationalism”—and history of successful ‘moonshot projects’ like “Two Bombs, One Satellite”—such efforts are resource intensive, often involving ambitions mega-projects that devote tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in funding, and can leverage tech transfer to advance indigenous innovation.[17] To date, licit and illicit forms of tech transfer have been major enablers of China’s military modernization.[18] However, Chinese Communist Party and PLA leaders aspire to advance not merely indigenous but truly disruptive innovation to pioneer new breakthroughs, particularly in emerging technologies.[19] According to a recent National Science Board report, China is already second only to the U.S. in research and development spending with 21% of the world’s total as of 2015, and, with 18% annual growth in funding, is on track to surpass the U.S.[20] There are also robust indicators of increases in both the quantity and the quality of China’s scientific research.[21]

As of 2018, China has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of scientific articles.[22] Of note, in 2017, Chinese artificial intelligence startup Malong Technologies won the inaugural WebVision contest, which tested computer vision driven by artificial intelligence, and Yitu Tech, a Chinese facial recognition startup took first place in the Facial Recognition Prize Challenge hosted by the Intelligence Advanced Projects Agency.[23,24] Meanwhile, China’s biotech industry is flourishing, supported by an estimated $100 billion in investment in the life science, and Chinese scientists have conducted the most human trials involving CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which is used as the basis for gene editing.[25,26] The new National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science will become the world’s largest quantum research facility, with over $1 billion in funding to pursue advances in quantum computing and reportedly engage in research on other quantum technologies that may be of immediate use to China’s armed forces.[27] Indeed, although these technologies do, of course, have a range of impactful commercial applications, advances will also likely be turned to defense applications.

Comparison of different technology hubs, as published in "CES becomes the Chinese electronics show as Shenzhen, Dongguan exhibitors throng fair," South China Morning Post, January 9, 2018.

As China undertakes an ambitious military modernization agenda, its model of defense innovation is characterized by the pursuit of a national strategy of “military-civil fusion” (军民融合) that seeks to leverage synergies between academic, industry, and military advances, particularly in emerging, inherently dual-use technologies.[28,29] As Chinese enterprises become major engines for innovation, the state is seeking to harness their dynamism as national champions.[30] Increasingly, the notion of military-civil fusion is becoming more of a reality as a result of the top-level focus on its advancement, which is directed by the Chinese Communist Party’s Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission (中央军民融合发展委员会).[31] Established in early 2017 under the leadership of Xi Jinping himself, this commission is pursuing a series of plans that seek to break down traditional barriers between commercial and defense enterprises.[32,33] For instance, Tsinghua University has established the Military-Civil Fusion National Defense Peak Technologies Laboratory (清华大学军民融合国防尖端技术实验室), which will create a platform for the pursuit of dual-use applications of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence.[34] Beijing’s Zhongguancun National Innovation Demonstration Zone—which has, by some metrics, replaced Silicon Valley as the world’s top tech hub—is also engaged in this military-civil fusion agenda.[35,36] This structural approach could potentially advantage PLA efforts to ensure that commercial advances can be readily, and perhaps rapidly, transferred for military employment.


By contrast, the current U.S. model for innovation has looked to the private sector as the engine of innovation for science and in defense. Certainly, it is true that U.S. enterprises remain global leaders in most critical scientific domains, and U.S. tech companies spend seemingly stratospheric amounts on research and development. For instance, in the past fiscal year, Amazon spent $16.1 billion, Alphabet $13.9 billion, and Intel $12 billion.[37] Nonetheless, major U.S. companies are seemingly starting to devote less to basic and applied research than many have historically, focusing instead on later stages of development that are more likely to be lucrative.[38] Given these trends, it is important to raise the question as to whether private funding and investments may not be enough to enable long-term dynamism and national competitiveness in innovation, relative to the pace at which it is occurring in China.

Harrison Schmitt on the Moon during Apollo 17. (NASA)

Inherently, even when massive amounts of commercial investment is occurring, there can be a lack of adequate support for high-risk, early-stage research that is less likely to have viable commercial applications in the near term. Traditionally, government funding for research and development has been vital to bridge this gap.[39] However, there are reasons for serious concern that declining spending in federal outlays for basic research, exacerbated by budget cuts and inconsistencies in funding, could result in an innovation deficit that could seriously undermine long-term U.S. competitiveness.[40] So too, the persistent shortcomings in U.S. primary science education are troubling, as human talent remains critical strategic resource in enabling innovation. Perhaps ironically, China’s current whole-of-nation approach to scientific advancement has some parallels to and has been, in part, inspired by U.S. efforts during the Cold War, after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik catalyzed the Space Race. At the time, the U.S. response encompassed not only rapid increases in federal funding but also a greater recognition of the strategic importance of science education at all levels.[41] That focus on taking advantage of all available talent resulted in the inclusion of those often underrepresented in science and defense, from women cryptographers to African-American mathematicians, who are only belatedly starting to receive the credit deserved for their historic contributions.[42] Today, however, as the U.S. government’s involvement in driving innovation has diminished, the Department of Defense is looking to Silicon Valley for next-generation technologies. In the process, the challenges of overcoming what has been characterized as a rocky relationship can act as an impediment to the deeper integration of commercial and defense technological development that has occurred within the U.S. historically and is starting to progress today in China.[43]


What do these divergences in current U.S. and Chinese models of technological and defense innovation mean for the future strategic balance? At a time when the new National Defense Strategy recognizes long-term strategic competition with China and Russia as principle priorities for the U.S, it is clear the future of U.S. economic dynamism and military power may depend upon the U.S. ability to remain a leader in this new wave of innovation.[44] Given China’s trajectory and ambitions in innovation, the U.S. military must also recognize the PLA’s potential emergence as a true peer competitor and reevaluate the nature of U.S.-China military and technological competition accordingly. Within this competition, the new National Security and Defense Strategies highlight that it is vital to protect the “National Security Innovation Base,” which is defined as “the American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people—including academia, National Laboratories, and the private sector—that turns ideas into innovations.”[45] Certainly, taking action to mitigate illicit technology transfers, including through cyber espionage, should be an important component of a strategy to ensure U.S. innovation advantage. However, the vitality of the U.S. innovation base will require a more ambitious, far-reaching strategy.

The U.S. must undertake a surge in science to ensure enduring competitive advantage. Such a surge should start by targeting strategic investments to long-term research and development and should also concentrate on educating and attracting top talent. For well over a decade, concerns about American competitiveness in science and technology have been growing, but without a forceful or decisive response.[46] So too, within the defense industry, after years of declining budgets, the severe market shock resulting from sequestration and budget caps have undermined the U.S. defense industry, reducing the number of vendors and chilling research and development.[47] In recent history, the U.S. has been the world leader in innovation, but innovation is not an American birthright. Rather, it is perhaps the result of unique circumstances that has created an unparalleled innovation ecosystem, in which our highly vaunted private sector has been only one of the protagonists. To chart a path forward, U.S. leaders might look to the history of successful past partnerships among the U.S. government, universities, and enterprises, whether in World War II, the Space Race, or even the War on Cancer. At the same time, U.S. leaders must remember that this is not the Cold War, but rather a highly complex, globalized, and interconnected era in which the U.S.-China relationship is multi-faceted and complicated. For the U.S. to continue to lead in science and technology will require ensuring the continued leverage of its greatest competitive advantages: the vitality and openness of its innovation ecosystem, which has allowed the U.S. to attract talent from throughout the world.


However, it is also critical to recognize—given the potential for the rapid diffusion of key technologies and China’s rise as a would-be superpower in science and technology—that it may not be feasible for the U.S. to regain or retain uncontested technological advantage. Consequently, U.S. military advantage might be best assured through leveraging perhaps more enduring advances in the human and organizational dimensions of innovation in which the Chinese military may struggle, including through creating new concepts of operations and perhaps even new organizational structures. Ultimately, the future of warfare remains uncertain but will be determined by today’s strategic choices.

Elsa B. Kania is a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge and an Adjunct Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, where she focuses on Chinese defense innovation and emerging technologies. She is the author of “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power.”

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] The notion of disruptive transitions was a major focus of the 2018 Raisina Dialogue, which I appreciated having the chance to attend:

[2] Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,”

[3] Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,”

[4] Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,”

[5] “China dominates list of world's top supercomputers again,” Xinhua, November 13, 2017,

[6] “China must accelerate implementation of big data strategy: Xi,” Xinhua, December 9, 2017,

[7] Elsa B. Kania, “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power,” Center for a New American Security, November 2017,

[8] Jonathan Ray, Katie Atha, Edward Francis, Caleb Dependahl, Dr. James Mulvenon, Daniel Alderman, and Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce, “China’s Industrial and Military Robotics Development,” Defense Group Inc., Research Report Prepared on Behalf of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, October 2016,

[9] Elsa B. Kania, “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power,” Center for a New American Security, November 2017,

[10] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “China’s Progress with Directed Energy Weapons,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on “China’s Advanced Weapons,” February 23, 2017, Elsa B. Kania, “The PLA’s Potential Breakthrough in High-Power Microwave Weapons,” The Diplomat, March 11, 2017,

[11] Mark A. Stokes, Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on “Chinese Advanced Weapons Development,” February 23, 2017,

[12] Ankit Panda, “Introducing the DF-17: China's Newly Tested Ballistic Missile Armed With a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle,” The Diplomat, December 28, 2017,

[13] Eleonore Pauwels and A. Vidyarthi, “Who Will Own The Secrets in Our Genes? A U.S.-China Race in Artificial Intelligence and Genomics,” Policy Brief, Wilson Center, February 2017,

[14] This report builds upon prior research and writings by the authors, including: Elsa Kania and John Costello, “Quantum Technologies, U.S.-China Strategic Competition, and Future Challenges for Cyber Stability,” CyCon U.S., November 7, 2017. Elsa Kania and John Costello, “Quantum Leap (Part 1): China’s Advances in Quantum Information Science, China Brief, December 5, 2016,, Elsa Kania and John Costello, “Quantum Leap (Part 2): The Strategic Implications of Quantum Technologies, China Brief, December 21, 2016,, and Elsa Kania and John Costello, “Disruption Under the Radar: Chinese Advances in Quantum Sensing,” August 17, 2017, China Brief,

[15] “Xi Jinping’s Report at the Chinese Communist Party 19th National Congress” [习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告], Xinhua, October 27, 2017,

[16] Xi Jinping: Comprehensively Advance an Innovation Driven Development Strategy, Promote New Leaps in National Defense and Military Construction” [习近平:全面实施创新驱动发展战略 推动国防和军队建设实现新跨越], Xinhua, March 13, 2016, See also the official strategy released on innovation-driven development: “CCP State Council Releases the “National Innovation-Driven Development Strategy Guidelines” [中共中央 国务院印发《国家创新驱动发展战略纲要》], Xinhua, May 19, 2016,

[17] Evan A. Feigenbaum, “The Deep Roots and Long Branches of Chinese Technonationalism,” Macro Polo, August 12, 2017,

[18] Tai Ming Cheung, “Innovation in China’s Defense Technology Base: Foreign Technology and Military Capabilities,” Journal of Strategic Studies, September 11, 2016, William C. Hannas, James Mulvenon, and Anna B. Puglisi, Chinese Industrial Espionage: Technology Acquisition and Military Modernization, Routledge, 2013.

[19] Xi Jinping: Comprehensively Advance an Innovation Driven Development Strategy, Promote New Leaps in National Defense and Military Construction” [习近平:全面实施创新驱动发展战略 推动国防和军队建设实现新跨越], Xinhua, March 13, 2016, See also the official strategy released on innovation-driven development: “CCP State Council Releases the “National Innovation-Driven Development Strategy Guidelines” [中共中央 国务院印发《国家创新驱动发展战略纲要》], Xinhua, May 19, 2016,

[20] Robert J. Samuelson, “China’s breathtaking transformation into a scientific superpower,” Washington Post, January 21, 2018,

[21] “America’s still first in science, but China rose fast as funding stalled in U. S. and other countries,” Science Daily, June 15, 2017,

[22] Jeff Tollefson, “China declared world’s largest producer of scientific articles,” Nature, January 18, 2018,

[23] “China AI Startup Malong Technologies Wins WebVision Challenge,” July 27, 2017,

[24] “Yitu Tech Wins the 1st Place in Identification Accuracy In Face Recognition Prize Challenge 2017,” PRNewswire, November 03, 2017,

[25] “Biotech booms in China,” January 17, 2018, Nature,

[26] Preetika Rana, Amy Dockser Marcus, and Wenxin Fan, “China, Unhampered by Rules, Races Ahead in Gene-Editing Trials,” Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2018,

[27] “Anhui Reports on the Construction of the National Laboratory of Quantum Information Science, Total Investment 7 Billion Yuan” [安徽拟申报建设量子信息科学国家实验室,总投资约70亿元], July 11, 2017, “Hefei’s Construction a National Science Center from "Design" to "Construction Map” [合肥建设国家科学中心 从“设计图”转为“施工图], China News Network, September 13, 2017,

[28] For the purposes of this paper, I choose to use the term “military-civil fusion” (军民融合) as the translation rather than “civil-military integration,” to avoid confusion with a similar but distinct term (军民结合). For a more detailed analysis of the dynamics of China’s military-civil fusion strategy, see: Greg Levesque and Mark Stokes, “Blurred Lines: Military-Civil Fusion and the “Going Out” of China’s Defense Industry,” Pointe Bello, December 2016,

[29] Elsa B. Kania, “China Is On a Whole-of-Nation Push for AI. The US Must Match It,” Defense One, December 8, 2017, Elsa Kania, “The Dual-Use Dilemma in China’s New AI Plan: Leveraging Foreign Innovation Resources and Military-Civil Fusion,” Lawfare, July 28, 2017,

[30] Meng Jing and Sarah Dai, “China recruits Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to AI ‘national team,’” South China Morning Post, November 21, 2017,

[31] “Military-Civil Integration Development Committee Established” [军民融合发展委成立], Xinhua, January 23, 2017,

[32] “Xi Jinping Presides Over the First Plenary Session of the Central Military-Civil Fusion Development Committee” [习近平主持召开中央军民融合发展委员会第一次全体会议], Xinhua, June 20, 2017,

[33] “‘Thirteenth Five-Year’ Science and Technology Military-Civil Fusion Special Plan” Released Today” [《“十三五”科技军民融合发展专项规划》近日印发], Xinhua, August 23, 2017,

[34] “Tsinghua Starts to Establish the Military-Civil Fusion National Defense Peak Technologies Laboratory” [清华启动筹建军民融合国防尖端技术实验室], China Education Report, June 26, 2017,

[35] Casey Hynes, “Beijing -- Not Silicon Valley -- Is The World's Top Tech Hub, Report Says,” Forbes, November 2, 2017,

[36] See, for instance: “Zhongguancun Military-Civil Fusion Industrial Park Formally Completed and Revealed” [中关村军民融合产业园正式竣工亮相], China Economics Network, December 13, 2017,

[37] “Tech companies spend more on R&D than any other companies in the U.S.,” September 1, 2017,

[38] Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, Andrea Patacconi, “Killing the Golden Goose? The Decline of Science in Corporate R&D,” NBER Working Paper No. 20902, Issued in January 2015,

[39] American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Federal R&D Budget Trends: A Summary,” December 19, 2016,

[40] Report by the MIT Committee to Evaluate the Innovation Deficit, “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit,” April 2015, Postponed.pdf.

[41] Cornelia Dean, “When Science Suddenly Mattered, in Space and in Class,” New York Times, September 25, 2007, Alvin Powell, “How Sputnik changed U.S. education,” Harvard News Office, October 11, 2007,

[42] Liza Mundy, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World, Hachette Books, 2017. Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, William Morrow and Company, 2016.  

[43] Loren DeJonge Schulman, Alexander Sander, and Madeline Christian, “The Rocky Relationship Between Washington & Silicon Valley: Clearing the Path to Improved Collaboration,” CNAS, July 19, 2017, Ben Fitzgerald, Alexander Sander, and Jacqueline Parziale, “Future Foundry: A New Strategic Approach to Military-Technical Advantage,” CNAS, December 14, 2016,

[44] Department of Defense, “Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Advantage,”

[45] “National Security Strategy of the United States,” December 2017,

[46] “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” National Academy of Sciences, 2007,

[47] Rhys McCormick, Andrew P. Hunter, Gregory Sanders, “Measuring the Impact of Sequestration and the Drawdown on the Defense Industrial Base,” CSIS, December 2017,

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