In Military-Civil Fusion, China Is Learning Lessons From the United States and Starting to Innovate

August 27, 2019
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China’s national strategy of “military-civil fusion” (军民融合) is provoking some anxiety in Washington.[1] There are concerns the United States could be challenged, or even outright disadvantaged, in technological competition relative to the more integrated approach to innovation Chinese leaders are attempting to achieve. The whole-of-nation implementation of military-civil fusion indicates the seriousness of Chinese attempts to create and leverage synergies between defense and commercial developments, particularly in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology.[2] It is important to recognize both the parallels and distinctions between American and Chinese concepts and approaches that can clarify the character of this competitive challenge.

China’s initiatives in military-civil fusion are informed by a close study of, and learning from, the U.S. defense industry and American defense innovation ecosystem to an extent that can be striking. In certain respects, military-civil fusion can be described as China’s attempt to imitate and replicate certain strengths from a U.S. model, but reflected through a glass darkly and implemented as a state-driven strategy.[3] In this regard, American responses to the challenge of China’s ambitions in innovation ought not to envy or seek to emulate aspects of China’s model, but rather should recognize the unique strengths of its own ecosystem, while redoubling current initiatives intended to promote innovation.[4] Although China’s strategy of military-civil fusion—and the powerful momentum behind merit serious scrutiny and examination, it is equally important to recognize the inefficiencies and weaknesses exhibited to date.[5]

Chinese Military-Civil Fusion (CASI Cloud)

In China, military-civil fusion is at once a new strategy and a concept that builds upon a long history. Although its importance has been elevated prominently under Xi Jinping’s leadership, this initiative should not be attributed to Xi at the expense of recognizing these historical antecedents.[6] Along the way, the evolution of these attempts to create and leverage synergies among the civilian and defense economies has been influenced by unique elements of China’s political economy, while also looking to adapt approaches from the United States. When, starting in 1978, Deng Xiaoping called for civil-military integration (军民结合), the priority was initially building up China’s civilian economy, which had been devastated by Mao’s policies.[7] At that time, this concept was primarily intended to reorient military resources towards economic development.

As the Chinese economy became stronger and military modernization emerged as a priority for subsequent generations of Chinese leadership, the focus of civil-military integration continued to evolve and expand. The core concepts involve civilians participating in military initiatives (民参军) and the conversion of military efforts for civilian purposes (军转民). Across the recent history of multiple attempts at reform of the Chinese defense industry, certain problems prominently persisted.[8] For instance, there was a high level of stove-piping between the defense industry and the civilian economy, which is starting to be gradually overcome. Along the way, Chinese defense academics often looked to American antecedents for inspiration. For instance, the former Office of Technology Assessment released a report titled “Assessing the Potential for Civil-Military Integration” in 1995.[9] This report has had substantial readership in China, where it is cited to this day as an example of U.S. efforts to leverage commercial technologies to achieve the benefits of technology transfer for cost savings.[10]

For Chinese leaders, a core concern that has motivated these efforts is balancing the imperative of economic development with increasing requirements for national defense. The Chinese Communist Party has closely studied the mistakes that resulted in the downfall of Soviet Union, including overextension exacerbated by excessive military spending.[11] Wary of American attempts to impose costs on China through a comparable competitive strategy, Beijing has usually limited increases in its military budget to 10% or less.[12] For instance, in his report to the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Hu Jintao called for a “Chinese-style path that integrates the development of military and civilian sectors,” urging that China “combine efforts to make the country prosperous and the armed forces strong.”[13] For Chinese leaders, economic development has remained the urgent imperative for national legitimacy, and these increasing economic capabilities and attendant technological advancements have created a foundation for continued military modernization.

Xi Jingping observing new technologies (Xinhau)

Xi Jinping has taken these initiatives and antecedents to a new level. The recent transition from civil-military integration (junmin jiehe, 军民结合) to military-civil fusion (junmin ronghe, 军民融合) occurring under Xi Jinping’s leadership could be dismissed as semantic, but it is also profound. These concepts are often confused in American discourse and writings, not least because the official Chinese language reporting and translations often conflate the two through using the same translation for both phrases.[14] However, the literal translation of “fusion,” which is often favored by analysts of these policies—and now admitted to be accurate and appropriate by Chinese scholars—comes closer to conveying the full meaning and significance of the shift. This paradigm is applied not only to research and armaments development but also to contexts including logistics, human capital, and national defense mobilization.

Building upon earlier policies aiming to promote civil-military integration, a new national strategy for military-civil fusion, sometimes characterized as a grand strategy (大战略) for China, was formally launched in 2015.[15] The subsequent establishment of the Central Commission for the Development of Military-Civil Fusion in January 2017 has provided top-level design and mechanisms to implement the plans and policies intended to foster military-civil fusion, while perhaps also revealing that stronger leadership was seen as necessary to realize this agenda.[16] Since then, new plans and programs have highlighted certain dual-use and emerging technologies, including the Science and Technology Military-Civil Fusion Special Projects Plan (科技军民融 合发展专项规划) released in September 2017, which emphasized priorities of biology, artificial intelligence, and quantum technology.[17]

Whereas China’s initial aspiration was to progress towards an initial integration or closer combination of the defense and civilian economies, this new focus on fusion implies a deeper melding than had been previously achieved. This change in phrasing has also corresponded with a significant expansion in the wide range of efforts occurring under this umbrella. For instance, a growing number of cities and provinces throughout China have established a range of new parks and “demonstration zones”’ for military-civil fusion.[18] Meanwhile, new funds for military-civil fusion projects have been announced that are estimated to amount to hundreds of billions of Renminbi.[19] Yet, it is hard to evaluate how much has been actually invested to date, let alone what the return on investment might be. Increasingly, military-civil fusion is not only applied to technological development; it also extends to talent and logistics, while acting as a guiding concept for China’s approach to national defense mobilization.[20]

U.S. defense experts may be surprised that certain U.S. policies and practices are routinely characterized by Chinese military researchers as involving American military-civil fusion, just as Chinese colleagues often claim to be confused why Washington is concerned that China is pursuing a strategy that is seen in their eyes as reminiscent of American approaches. Of course, there are some striking differences. The level of integration in the American ecosystem has emerged more organically over the course of decades, rather than as the result of a state-driven strategy intended to be implemented much more rapidly. The full scope of military-civil fusion as a concept is much broader than the public-private partnerships the Pentagon has been promoting. For instance, some of China’s leading e-commerce companies directly support the People’s Liberation Army Air Force by providing them drones for logistics.[21] Recently, some Chinese shipping companies also contributed to cross-sea transport drills, providing capabilities that could be leveraged for an amphibious landing on Taiwan or in the South China Sea.[22]

Sometimes, the status of military-civil fusion in China is discussed in the United States as if this strategy were a fait accompli. At least for the time being, that is not the case. Certainly, Chinese military leaders are eager to draw upon the advances of Chinese technology companies, but the realization of such fusion through deeper melding between these sectors seems to remain more aspirational at present. Whereas what Chinese defense experts consider American military-civil fusion has emerged organically over the course of a long history of public-private partnerships and mechanisms that extend back to World War II, China today is attempting to create a comparable ecosystem much more quickly and by means of plans and policies that are being actively implemented from the central down to provincial—and even municipal—governments.

Often, this seemingly convergent evolution reflects a degree of mimicry in Chinese policies and practices in ways that are readily recognizable. For instance, the new Central Military Commission Science and Technology Commission has been described as a Chinese response or counterpart to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is considered a significant American institution for military-civil fusion. At the same time, in Shenzhen, the Central Military Commission Science and Technology Commission has established a “rapid response small group,” characterized in some Chinese reporting as “China’s DIUx,” for national defense innovation that is intended to improve the capability of the People’s Liberation Army to leverage commercial technologies.[23] To date, its early projects have included human-machine cooperation and intelligent target recognition.Chinese military scientists and strategists often characterize American initiatives as more mature and successful than their own efforts to date.[24] However, the momentum and resourcing of these new programs, which are expanding in scope and scale nationwide, is striking and indicates their future potential should not be discounted.

To some degree, U.S. concerns are driven by the assessment that Chinese companies and universities seem unlikely to refuse outright or could be compelled to work with the military, whereas their American counterparts often appear more resistant to working on military research. This asymmetry is a real concern, but it is also striking at the same time that some of China’s leading technology companies appear to be less directly engaged in supporting defense initiatives than might be expected relative to their American counterparts, at least at the moment and based on publicly available information.[25] China’s technology companies are often motivated by commercial considerations in a fiercely competitive ecosystem. Not all are eager to pursue or prioritize closer collaboration with the People’s Liberation Army, even though it is unlikely there would or could be refusal or resistance comparable to that available to an American company. Those Chinese technology companies with international aspirations, such as Alibaba, may tend to be less open or transparent about collaborations with the Chinese military and defense industry, with some notable exceptions. In one prominent exception, Baidu, which is a global leader and member of China’s national team (国家队) in artificial intelligence.[26] And the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, a state-owned defense conglomerate, established a joint laboratory for the application of big data, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing to command and control.[27]

At the same time, certain companies have seen working with the People’s Liberation Army as a viable strategy and direction, openly signaling their interest in supporting military-civil fusion and engaging with the military. Some of the prominent examples include Yunzhou Tech, a leader in unmanned surface vessels; Ziyan, a major player in drones and unmanned helicopters; and Kuang-Chi Technologies, which is applying machine learning to its research on military metamaterials.[28] It is not unlikely that China’s Party-state possesses the capability to transfer technology through more forcible methods if necessary, but there are also reasons for the Chinese government to exercise some restraint, given the potential negative externalities of too readily exercising that power.

The process of implementing military-civil fusion may prove effective in the long term, but tend to create inefficiencies in the near term. It remains to be seen to what extent the level of activity that can be readily observed will translate to tangible and lasting outcomes. That is, the scope and scale of effort pursuant to military-civil fusion may not directly translate into impact and quality of results. Not unlike the U.S. military, the People’s Liberation Army must grapple with the challenge of effectively incorporating commercial technologies, which has required changing its approach to procurement and reaching beyond the typical defense industry players. Some Chinese companies that take up the mantle of military-civil fusion may be seeking to take advantage of the resources available more than providing tangible contributions to military modernization. Potentially, the surge in funding for military-civil fusion, including the launch of guidance funds dedicated to military-civil fusion, could exacerbate issues of corruption in the Chinese military and defense industry.[29] As is often the case in China’s policy process, the mantle of military-civil fusion also seems to be taken up and applied too expansively at times, resulting in a call for greater coordination and standardization in this complex undertaking. Although the Chinese government seeks to pursue a precise and scientific approach to managing this complex endeavor, the process of implementation should not be considered

How much of an impact will this strategy of military-civil fusion have on the future trajectory of Chinese military innovation? This will require continued analysis, but it is noteworthy that there are a growing number of joint laboratories and research partnerships that could facilitate closer research collaboration among the Chinese military, defense industry, academic institutions, and commercial enterprises. Tsinghua University, often described as “China’s MIT,” is institutionally dedicated to military-civil fusion, particularly inartificial intelligence, including its academics’ research on human-machine cooperative operations with support from the Central Military Commission Science and Technology Commission.[30] In Beijing, the high-tech zone of Zhongguancun has focused on advancing military-civil fusion in emerging technologies, including establishing new industrial parks and taking on hundreds of projects such as in robotics and intelligent equipment. During the Beijing Military-Civil Fusion Expo 2019, which is intended to market commercial technologies to potential military customers, among the systems on display was a new armored, multipurpose drone launching vehicle, capable of launching a dozen drones to conduct reconnaissance or even suicide attacks.[31] Meanwhile, Tianjin’s new Artificial Intelligence Military-Civil Fusion Innovation Center, was established in partnership with the Academy of Military Science, which now leads military science research for the People’s Liberation Army and has particular prominence in defense innovation initiatives.[32] Qingdao has specialized in undersea robotics systems and actively explored applications of artificial intelligence for this domain.[33]

Ultimately, China’s strategy of military-civil fusion is neither as unique nor as complete as it is sometimes characterized in American discussions.[34] It is important to recognize the extent to which the Chinese military is learning from a close study of American initiatives in attempting to achieve this melding of defense and commercial developments in emerging technologies. In the process, there will be parallel difficulties between the U.S. and Chinese militaries that are inherent in the challenge of bureaucratic adaptation to the disruption catalyzed by innovation for which dynamic companies are taking the lead. There are no clear reasons to seek to emulate such a state-driven approach to military-civil fusion in its totality; rather, American policymakers should recognize the strengths, while redressing the shortcomings, of their current innovation ecosystem. In particular, the freedom and openness of the U.S. political economy, including that of companies to choose whether or not to work with the U.S. military, remain critical comparative advantages. By contrast, Xi Jinping’s call for China to become a nation of innovation may be impeded by the competing imperatives of Party control and ideology that have become particularly prominent under his leadership.

“China National Defense in the New Era,” the latest national defense white paper released in July 2019, called for China to pursue innovation and accelerate military intelligentization (智能化).[35] The apparent absence of pushback against militarization of artificial intelligence in China does not mean the United States will be inherently disadvantaged by the open debates on ethics that are happening in U.S. civil society.[36] The Department of Defense’s dedication to deeply engaging questions of artificial intelligence ethics through its Artificial Intelligence Principles Project may contribute to a more sustainable approach in the long term, for example.[37] Nor is browbeating American companies for a supposed lack of patriotism productive when the core challenge is building bridges and fostering new mechanisms to develop and leverage advances in emerging technologies, including through improving economic incentives and mechanisms for procurement.[38] China’s strategy of military-civil fusion does present a competitive challenge that should be taken seriously. However, the lessons that are worth learning also harken back to a history of American governmental investments in science and technology that created a foundation for today’s commercial developments. Looking forward, U.S. policy should concentrate on recognizing and redoubling our own initiatives to promote public-private partnership in critical technologies, while sustaining and increasing investments in American research and innovation.

Elsa B. Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. 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] Kathrin Hille and Richard Waters, “Washington unnerved by China’s ‘military-civil fusion,’” Financial Times, July 11, 2018,

[2] Elsa B. Kania, “Chinese Military Innovation in Artificial Intelligence,” Testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 2019,

[3] Samuel Bendett and Elsa B. Kania, “Chinese and Russian Defense Innovation, with American Characteristics? — Military Innovation, Commercial Technologies, and Great Power Competition,” The Strategy Bridge, August 2, 2018,

[4] “China’s Threat to American Government and Private Sector Research and Innovation Leadership,” Testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, July 19, 2018,

[5] For a helpful and authoritative assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese industrial policy and implementation of military-civil fusion, see: Greg Levesque, “Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on What Keeps Xi Up at Night: Beijing’s Internal and External Challenges,” February 7, 2019,

[6] Xi Jinping has consistently emphasized the importance of military-civil fusion in prominent statements since at least 2013. For early mention of the importance of the concept, see: “Xi Jinping: Strive to build a people's army that can listen to the party's command, fight and win wars, and maintains excellent style” [习近平:努力建设一支听党指挥能打胜仗作风优良的人民军队], People’s Daily, March 12, 2013,

[7] See: 姬文波 , “From Civil-Military Integration” to “Military-Civil Fusion” - adjustment and improvement of China's national defense science and technology industry leadership management system since the reform and opening up” [从“军民结合”到“军民融合”——改革开放以来中国国防科技工业领导管理体制的调整与完善], Party History Expo [党史博览], 2018,

[8] Tai Ming Cheung, “The Chinese defense economy's long march from imitation to innovation,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 34, no. 3 (2011): 325-354.

[9] Office of Technology Assessment, “Assessing the Potential for Civil-Military Integration: Technologies, Processes, and Practices,” OTA-ISS-611, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1994. Li Xiaohua [李晓华], “Economic Interpretation of the Development of Military-Civilian Fusion” [军民深度融合发展的经济学解释], People's Forum · Academic Frontier [人民论坛· 学术前沿], 17 (2017): 21-28.

[10] For instance, the report was mentioned unexpectedly in conversations on military-civil fusion during one of my trips to Beijing.

[11] David L. Shambaugh and Joseph J. Brinley, China's Communist Party: atrophy and adaptation, University of California Press, 2008.

[12] China’s defense budget reached $151.6 billion as of 2017, which See the new national defense white paper that China has released, which provides an official update on the reforms: “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” Xinhua, July 24, 2019,

[13] “Full text of Hu Jintao's report at 18th Party Congress,” November 27, 2012,

[14] That is, both 军民结合 and 军民融合 are often rendered as “civil-military integration” in official translations. See, for instance:

[15] See: “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, Xi Jinping Discusses Military-Civil Fusion” [习近平谈军民融合], Seeking Truth, October 16, 2018,

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Thirteenth Five-Year Science and Technology Military-Civil Fusion Development Special Plan” (Full Text) [“十三五”科技军民融合发展专项规划》全文], September 26, 2017,

[18] For an example, see: “The First Military-Civil Fusion AI Industry Development Summit Forum Held in Qingdao” [学校首届军民融合人工智能产业发展高峰论坛在青召开], April 15, 2018 “Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economic Informatization on the launch of Shanghai military-civil fusion industry investment fund” [上海市经济信息化委关于开展上海市军民融合产业投资基金], Ibid.

[19] See, for instance: “Military-Civil Fusion Innovation Industry Park Unveiled at Shunde” [ 军民融合创新产业园将在顺德揭牌], December 22, 2017,

[20] For a more detailed assessment, see: “Mobilizing for the Challenge of Great Power Rivalry,” Testimony before the National Commission on Service’s Hearing on “Future Mobilization Needs of the Nation,” April 24, 2019,

[21] “Reconnaissance, Search and Rescue, Delivering Materials – the Military Jointly with JD Organizes a UAV Reserve Sub-Unit” [侦查、搜救、送物资,军方联合京东组无人机预备役分队], May 19, 2018, Peter Wood, “Local Companies Provide Logistics Support During PLA Joint Exercise,” OE Watch, December 1, 2018,

[22] “China holds military-civilian cross-sea transport drills in Yellow Sea,” Global Times, July 11, 2019,

[23] “The whole nation’s first national defense science and technology innovation rapid response team launched in Shenzhen” [全国首个国防科技创新快速响应小组在深圳启动], March 18, 2018,

[24] See, for instance, this article in official media, which describes the Pentagon’s approach to Silicon Valley: “Military-Civil Fusion Promotes the Pentagon [to be] "hand in hand" with Silicon Valley” [军民融合促五角大楼“牵手”硅谷], Xinhua, May 23, 2018,

[25] For instance, to date, I have been unable to find explicit indications that Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are deeply and extensively involved in military research, beyond reports on Baidu’s partnership with CETC and Alibaba’s participation in PLA conferences and designation as an enterprise supporting military-civil fusion in a document from one local government. Of course, it is possible and not unlikely that their research, including that conducted through national laboratories, will contribute to national defense. However, these companies have not, for instance, been openly bidding upon and accepting military contracts in the sources that I have encountered so far. Big data builds the strongest “military brain”” [大数据构筑最强“军事大脑], Qiushi, July 12, 2018,

[26] “China recruits Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to AI ‘national team,’” South China Morning Post, November 21, 2017, “Artificial Intelligence Open Platform, Have you Joined?” [人工智能开放平台,你加入了吗-中新网”], China News, December 13, 2018,

[27] “CETC 28th Research Institute and Baidu Company Establish the “Joint Laboratory for Intelligent Command and Control Technologies” Step Forward Military-Civil Fusion in the Field of New Technologies in Depth” [中国电科28所与百度公司成立“智能指挥控制技术联合实验室”推动军民融合向新技术领域纵深迈进], January 23, 2018,

[28] For example, see some of the weapons systems tbat Yunzhou Tech is openly displaying, see: “China’s first unmanned missile boat revealed at Airshow China 2018,” Global Times, November 7, 2018,

[29] For further context on these funds, which are dedicating billions to dual-use research, see: “The purpose, function and significance of the government's establishment of the military-civilian fusion funds” [政府发起设立军民融合基金的目标、作用与意义浅谈], April 24, 2019,

[30] See this translation from my blog: “Tsinghua's Approach to Military-Civil Fusion in Artificial Intelligence,” For the original speech, see also: “The Ministry of Education held a press conference to interpret the "Action Plan for Artificial Intelligence Innovation in Higher Education Institutions,” etc.” [教育部举行新闻发布会解读《高等学校人工智能创新行动计划》等], Ministry of Education, June 8, 2018,,

[31] “China develops armored vehicle capable of launching suicide drones,” Global Times, May 8, 2019,

[32] For more information on the Tianjin Artificial Intelligence Innovation Center, see: “Tianjin (Binhai) Artificial Intelligence Military-Civil Fusion Innovation Center” [天津(滨海)人工智能军民融合创新中心], November 14, 2018,

[33] “17 military science and technology projects headed by maritime S&T projects settled in Qingdao West Coast New District” [以海洋科技项目为首的17个军工科技项目落户青岛西海岸新区], June 15, 2017, “The First Military-Civil Fusion AI Industry Development Summit Forum Held in Qingdao” [学校首届军民融合人工智能产业发展高峰论坛在青召开], April 15, 2018

[34] In a recent example of a prominent mischaracterization of this strategy, Peter Thiel claimed in a commentary: “All one need do is glance at the Communist Party of China’s own constitution: Xi Jinping added the principle of “civil-military fusion,” which mandates that all research done in China be shared with the People’s Liberation Army, in 2017.” (See: Peter Thiel, “Good for Google, Bad for America,” New York Times, August 1, 2019, This is factually inaccurate, including because military-civil fusion has not been added to the CCP constitution, and mischaracterizes a much more nuanced discussion of military-civil fusion that is cited. See: Lorand Laskai, “Civil-Military Fusion: The Missing Link Between China's Technological and Military Rise,” Net Politics, January 28, 2019,

[35] See the new national defense white paper that China has released, which provides an official update on the reforms: “China’s National Defense in the New Era,” Xinhua, July 24, 2019,

[36] Elsa Kania, “China’s AI Giants Can’t Say No to the Party,” Foreign Policy, August 2, 2018,

[37] See: “Defense Innovation Board's AI Principles Project,”

[38] For a strong argument on why economic considerations are a critical factor in deepening this divide, see: Rachel Olney, “The Rift Between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon Is Economic, Not Moral,” War on the Rocks, January 28 2019,

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