How does China view Artificial Intelligence (AI) as it applies to the country’s economy and national security? Beijing perceives AI as a high strategic priority and that it’s devoting the necessary resources to cultivate its national security community’s expertise and strategic thinking. And what this means for the US if it wants to meet the competitive challenge posed by China ?
China’s leadership – including President Xi Jinping – believes that being at the forefront in AI technology is critical to the future of global military and economic power competition.
In July 2017, China’s State Council issued the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (AIDP). This document – along with Made in China 2025, released in May 2015 – form the core of China’s AI strategy. Both documents, as well as the issue of AI more generally, have received significant and sustained attention from the highest levels of China’s leadership, including Xi Jinping. Total Chinese national and local government spending on AI to implement these plans is not publicly disclosed, but it is clearly in the tens of billions of dollars. At least two Chinese regional governments have each committed to investing 100 billion yuan (~$14.7 billion USD). AI has become a new focus of international competition. AI is a strategic technology that will lead in the future; the world’s major developed countries are taking the development of AI as a major strategy to enhance national competitiveness and protect national security.
The above quote also reflects how China’s AI policy community is paying close attention to the AI industries and policies of other countries, particularly the United States. Chinese government organizations routinely translate, disseminate, and analyze U.S. government and think tank reports about AI. In many reports of Chinese government AI reports, they demonstrated substantive and timely knowledge of AI developments in the United States and elsewhere. Chinese government AI reports frequently cite U.S. national security think tank publications. The U.S. policymaking community ought to make it a priority to be equally effective at translating, analyzing, and disseminating Chinese publications on AI for the insights they provide into Chinese thinking. China’s leadership – including Xi Jinping – believes that China should pursue global leadership in AI technology and reduce its vulnerable dependence on imports of international technology. In October 2018, Xi Jinping led a Politburo study session on AI. Such sessions are reserved for the high-priority policy issues where leaders need the benefit of outside expertise. Xi’s publicly reported comments during and after the study session reiterated the main conclusions of both the AIDP and Made in China 2025, which were that China should “achieve world-leading levels” in AI technology and reduce its vulnerable “external [foreign] dependence for key technologies and advanced equipment.”
In his speech during the study session, Xi said that China must “ensure that our country marches in the front ranks where it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies.” Xi further said that China must “pay firm attention to the structure of our shortcomings, ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands.” Xi’s speech demonstrates that China’s leadership continues to subscribe to AIDP’s and Made in China 2025’s two major conclusions that China should pursue both world leadership and self-reliance in AI technology. The Chinese AI sector’s dependence on foreign technology is discussed further in point nine.
Recently, Chinese officials and government reports have begun to express concern in multiple diplomatic forums about arms race dynamics associated with AI and the need for international cooperation on new norms and potentially arms control. In a keynote speech during China’s largest international relations conference on July 15, 2018, Fu Ying, the Vice-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, said that Chinese technologists and policymakers agree regarding the “threat of the new [AI] technology to mankind.” She further stated that “We believe that we should cooperate to preemptively prevent the threat of AI.” Madam Fu’s depiction of AI as posing a shared threat to international security was echoed by many other Chinese diplomats and PLA think tank scholars. They was concerned that AI “will lower the threshold of military action,” because states may be more willing to attack each other with AI military systems due to the lack of casualty risk. Chinese officials also expressed concern that increased used of AI systems would make misperceptions and unintentional conflict escalation more likely due to the lack of well-defined norms regarding the use of such systems. Additionally, Chinese officials displayed substantive knowledge of the cybersecurity risks associated with AI sytems, as well as their implications for Chinese and international security.
Despite expressing concern on AI arms races, most of China’s leadership sees increased military usage of AI as inevitable and is aggressively pursuing it. China already exports armed autonomous platforms and surveillance AI.
It is clear that China’s government views AI as a high strategic priority and is devoting the required resources to cultivate AI expertise and strategic thinking among its national security community. This includes knowledge of U.S. AI policy discussions. So it is vital that the U.S. policymaking community similarly prioritize cultivating expertise and understanding of AI developments in China. Still, no amount of information on China’s AI strategy will be sufficient by itself to meet the competitive challenge posed by China. If the United States wants to lead the world in AI, it will require funding, focus, and a willingness among U.S. policymakers to drive large-scale necessary change. U.S. leaders have more powerful tools to influence the technological and economic competitiveness of the United States than they have tools to influence China’s competitiveness. They should prioritize accordingly.