Military vehicles carrying hypersonic cruise missiles DF-100 drive past Tiananmen Square
On command: Beijing’s ‘military-civil fusion’ policy forces Chinese companies to share tech with the PLA © Thomas Peter/Reuters

China’s test of a hypersonic weapon that circumnavigated the globe, in 2021, provided a startling reminder that the country has become a formidable military rival to the US even faster than expected.

Pentagon experts were stunned that Chinese scientists had overcome constraints posed by the laws of physics in developing a missile that was able to fire another projectile as it flew at hypersonic speed.

But the episode sent another clear message: China was using American technology to undermine US security. Chinese supercomputers involved in developing hypersonic weapons, for example, were running on chips that used US software.

Alarm bells were already ringing on multiple fronts. By the time President Joe Biden took office in 2021, concerns had mounted that emerging technologies were helping China close the gap with the US military. However, while the US was worrying about the rising number of Chinese warships, aircraft, missiles and satellites, it also had to focus on how China was gaining from technologies such as artificial intelligence, and making rapid advances in areas including quantum computing that could make it easier to break US spy agency encryption.

In a stark warning just two months after Biden became president, the National Security Commission on AI, a group of leading experts led by former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, suggested the US had become complacent.

“China is already an AI peer and it is more technically advanced in some applications,” the commission warned in a 756-page report. “Within the next decade, China could surpass the US as the world’s AI superpower.”

In one catastrophic illustration, just over a decade ago, Chinese intelligence was able to identify — and in some cases execute — spies recruited by the CIA. People familiar with the situation say China had become far better at
technical surveillance — for example, using AI-driven facial recognition
technology — than the CIA had realised.

China’s use of AI in security also reinforced one of the growing problems for the US and its allies in countering Beijing: the rising prevalence of dual-use technologies in a world where multilateral regimes, designed to prevent the spread of such technology to militaries, have become increasingly obsolete with the pace of change.

“US officials show increasing scepticism about the ability to safely export dual-use technologies to China, seeing it as a fool’s errand to try to distinguish between civil and military uses within a political system that intentionally blurs the lines between the two,” says Emily Kilcrease, a US-China economic security expert at the CNAS, a defence think-tank. She cites China’s “military-civil fusion” programme, which forces Chinese companies to share tech with the People’s Liberation Army.

Biden took the baton from the Trump administration in using export controls to complicate Chinese efforts to secure US tech with military applications.

In October, his team unveiled an array of controls designed to make it harder for China to obtain, or produce, advanced chips. It also worked with Japan and the Netherlands to cut off Chinese access to critical equipment for chipmaking.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, has described the approach as a “small yard, high fence” policy that seeks to make it as hard as possible for China to obtain a narrow range of highly advanced technologies with military applications.

“Our strategic competitors should not be able to exploit American and allied technologies to undermine American and allied security,” Sullivan said in a Georgetown University speech shortly after the restrictions were unveiled.

Gregory Allen, an AI expert at US think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the restrictions are not designed to convince China to moderate its ambition to become self-reliant in chips but are instead tailored to make its strategy fail.

“It did this by applying pressure at the high end of the market where Chinese companies are now cut off from critical categories of US technology, and at the low end of the market where Chinese companies still face competition from superior foreign firms,” explains Allen.

The US administration is now preparing to update the controls to make it harder for companies such as Nvidia to supply chips to China that are critical for AI applications. The White House is also poised to unveil an executive order to provide a screening mechanism for US investment into Chinese companies in fields such as AI, advanced chips, and quantum computing.

Biden’s approach to China and advanced technology has been largely applauded in Washington and welcomed by allies, even if some are concerned about the economic impact on their companies. But one big question is whether, rather than hinder China, the strategy will in fact provide an impetus for the country to move faster.

In the case of chips, some experts say the strategy will create a critical window that will allow the US to develop other military capabilities that will help in the case of a conflict with China over Taiwan. And they argue that China will struggle to replicate all of the parts of the hugely complex semiconductor ecosystem and its supply chain.

However, others worry that the US policy may just encourage China to pour even more money into advanced technologies and so accelerate its efforts to close the gap with the US military.

“The US is incentivising China to indigenise literally everything,” argues Evan Feigenbaum, an Asia expert and vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank.

Feigenbaum says this has led to a “much less integrated and dependent China” that exports its own indigenous technology in an effort to set global standards — something that concerns Washington.

But the Biden administration has made clear that it does not intend to change tack. During her recent visit to Beijing, US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen told her Chinese counterparts that, while Washington did not want to decouple from China, it would continue to implement “targeted actions” to make sure it was protecting its own national security.

This article is part of special report on National Security to be published on July 19  

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