Imagine that you’re a scientist, a researcher, or an engineer. Your job is to dream up new innovations, technologies, and solutions to some of our world’s most pressing problems. Perhaps you’re researching new artificial intelligence technologies, or pursuing advancements in quantum computing. You’ve been hard at work for months, maybe even for years. Then, suddenly – eureka! – it works. Your great idea. A new technology that could change the future and make a real difference for society.
But what if your great idea doesn’t end up where you thought it would? Instead, it ends up in the hands of a foreign military, the result of a systematic, global strategy by the Chinese Communist Party to develop a world class military and to advance its strategic ambitions to be the dominant regional power in Asia.
Unknowingly, you may be the victim of a disturbing global trend – the targeting of the world’s most advanced emerging sensitive technologies by the Chinese Communist Party for diversion to Chinese military research programs and weapons production. And how is the Chinese Communist Party pursuing this strategy? By abusing the access that China’s brightest scholars and researchers have earned to universities around the world, or the access successful Chinese tech companies have to the global economy.
The Chinese government recognizes the world is on the cusp of a technology revolution, one that will forever change the way people live their lives. Spurred by the development of artificial intelligence, the Chinese Communist Party is working to build the capacity to wage what it calls ‘intelligent warfare.’ Chinese President Xi Jinping has articulated that advanced science and technology will be critical to developing a world-class military by 2049, and has dedicated the Chinese government to winning the race to incorporate this technology into weapons systems and military doctrine. In pursuit of his goal, Xi has called upon the entire Chinese system to implement “military-civil fusion.”
Military-civil fusion is exactly what its name suggests – an attempt to deliberately erase the line between China’s military and civilian sectors. President Xi has explained in speeches and writing that a central component to achieving the “Chinese Dream” will be the hard military power to protect and advance Chinese interests. The Chinese Communist Party believes it will gain this power by acquiring and developing the most advanced capabilities in the world – regardless of where these technologies originate.
To arrive at this goal, Xi has personally directed the entirety of the Chinese system – civilian, military, state-owned and private – to eliminate the barriers between China’s civilian and defense economies, in order to pursue simultaneous economic and military advancement. And, while all nations contract certain defense projects to civilian institutions, the United States and our partners around the world have made assurances, through international and bilateral agreements and norms, that dual-use technology will not be diverted to military end uses without permission from the country of origin. Military-civil fusion strategy does the exact opposite, deliberately targeting international cooperation to acquire and develop advanced technologies to support military research and development and advanced weapons production.
Under military-civil fusion, private companies in China that develop new technologies have little ability to refuse incorporating them into military programs. Cooperation is required by Chinese national security law. As prominent scholar Zhu Feng explained to The New York Times last year, “China is by its nature, a police state. When a national security official comes to my office, I have no way to kick them out.” More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party provides generous incentives in the way of government funding to entities involved in military-civil fusion. The result is a Chinese civil sector that has been enlisted directly into the country’s military industrial complex, with global ramifications. Today, in countries all around the world where Chinese companies and individuals are operating, sensitive technology is being coopted from foreign individuals and institutions that had no intention of their research being used to advance Chinese military capabilities.
This is the conundrum now facing companies and universities around the world that engage with Chinese entities and the many brilliant thinkers China produces: If the barrier between China’s military and civilian sector is no more, we have no way to ensure that the products of international cooperation on technology development and trade will not be diverted to China’s military programs. We must protect technologies from theft and diversion, ensure that our own citizens and institutions do not accidentally augment the capabilities of a foreign military, and defend the norms of international technology cooperation.
If the global community is to protect not only our intellectual property but our international security, we must be alert and prepared. We all benefit from open collaboration among our most talented scientists, students, and innovators, many of whom hail from China and who are not to blame for their government’s strategies. Our international collaboration—including with Chinese partners—should remain robust. But, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reminded Silicon Valley leadership on January 13, we must “see China for what it is, not what we wish it would be.”
To do so, we must heed Secretary Pompeo’s advice. As he said, we must ask ourselves questions, like, “Who am I dealing with?” and “What’s the true risk-return calculus to doing business in China?” We can answer these questions by establishing safeguards and conducting due diligence, such as checking whether potential partners are engaged in military Research and Development. A growing number of tools exist for this purpose, including the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s , which allows users to “explore the military and security links of China’s universities.”
We simply cannot afford to ignore the risks posed by the Chinese government’s military-civil fusion strategy and how it ties back to the Chinese Communist Party’s geopolitical ambitions. Going forward, those who seek to partner with Chinese entities will have to proceed not just with hands extended, but with eyes wide open.
About the Author: Jenny Bavisotto is a Public Affairs Officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.