Editor's Note

In this paper, Tai Ming Cheung examines the vision and paths put forward by China under Xi Jinping to build a militarily powerful and technologically advanced country, which is also called a "techno-security state." Xi’s military reinforcement strategy is composed of the three following components―reform, modernization, and innovation; Xi has put particular emphasis on innovation and expanded its application to military arena far more compared to his predecessors. Cheung expects the Chinese techno-security state to make smooth progress under Xi’s leadership based on sufficient financial capacity and good access to foreign technology, despite hurdles such as bureaucratic fragmentation, corruption, and political interference.



Quotes from the paper 


At the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2017 that solidified Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and Commander-in Chief Xi Jinping’s hold on power for the foreseeable future, he offered a confident, even strident, vision of China’s growing long-term influence and might in the international system. Xi talked about “socialism with Chinese characteristics entering a new era” in which he described China as “moving closer to the global center stage,” that China’s brand of socialism offered a new option for countries who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence, and a China that was becoming a great power (Xi 2017).

To realize these grand ambitions, Xi stressed that China needs to become a militarily powerful and technologically advanced country, and he offered a timeline. First, the country should reach the first tier of the world’s most innovative countries by 2035, and at the same time, the military would realize its objectives of becoming a fully modern force. By 2050, China would challenge for global leadership with a world-class military a centerpiece of the country’s “comprehensive national strength.”

This paper examines whether these goals are realistic and achievable within the timeline put forward by Xi? How will China undertake this grand transformation? What is Xi’s vision for marrying military power with innovation? What are the geostrategic and geo-economic implications for the United States and Asia if China is successful?


The Emergence of the Chinese Techno-Security State under Xi Jinping

China under Xi Jinping is a security-maximizing state that is building its power and prestige on an increasingly capable and expansive economic and technological foundation. The country fits the profile of what can be defined as a techno-security state in which the development efforts of the state are prioritized to meeting expansive national security requirements, of which the cultivation of strategic technological and industrial capabilities are prime goals.


Xi’s vision of the Chinese techno-security state is heavily influenced by the ideological and organizational principles laid down during the Maoist era in the 1950s to 1970s and updated by his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in the 1990s and 2000s. These principles are emphatically statist in nature:

  • Technological development is strategic and fundamental for determining China’s place in the global strategic and economic balance –it is a vital ingredient in grand strategic thinking.
  • The state must invest in critical technological sectors because of high risks and long and costly research and development cycles.
  • The state must nurture indigenous innovation capacity, although this should allow for absorption of foreign technologies to help catch up.
  • Technology diffusion through spin-off or spin-on should be a central long-term goal
  • Military and security considerations should be paramount.
  • Emphasis should be on ‘big science’ mega-projects.

The grand strategy of Xi’s techno-security state has several core components:

  • Building a strong national security state, especially prioritizing the development of military, internal security, and information control capabilities across a wide array of domains, of which cyber is of central importance.
  • Building an advanced defense science, technological and industrial base.
  • Forging a dual-use civil-military economy.


The Rise of the Chinese National Security State under Xi 

In the making of the national security state, Xi has put forward a concept that he describes as a ‘national security path with Chinese characteristics’ that is a mixture of assertive principles coupled with deep concerns of vulnerabilities (Xinhua News Agency April 16, 2014). A number of key notions are behind the shaping of this concept:

  • National security is comprehensive: Xi sees the domestic and external components of national security as overlapping and tightly connected, which is very different from the compartmentalized approach that his predecessors pursued. This is an important reason why Xi decided to establish a new organization, the National Security Commission, to manage this integrated approach (Lampton 2016; Wuthnow 2017).
  • National security is expansive: Closely connected with the perspective that national security is comprehensive is the notion that it is expansive and covers many different domains. In a new national security law that is being finalized, national security is identified as covering 11 categories: political, territorial, military, economic, cultural, social, ecological, science and technology, information, nuclear, and natural resources.
  • Ensuring national security has to be done pro-actively, pre-emptively, and strategically: It is important to identify and address national security challenges and opportunities early, strategically, and decisively rather than being reactive and tactical. This requires extensive and high-level leadership engagement, close coordination across the national security apparatus, and the development of a capable and substantial intelligence system to keep abreast of internal and international developments.
  • Strongly asserting China’s interests: Xi is stressing the need to engage in struggle (斗争) in the pursuit of national interests, especially in the military and diplomatic arenas. In describing China’s approach in dealing with the United States, Admiral Sun pointed out that “facts have shown that without struggle it will be impossible for the United States to respect our core interests, without struggle it will be impossible to realize cooperation and win-win on the basis of equality, and without struggle it will be impossible to have an excellent situation today.” In other words, China needs to take a resilient stance and push hard against the United States in order to win its respect, although the Chinese leadership is also careful not to go too far and spark armed conflict, as it remains much weaker.


The Cult of Innovation and the Transformation of Chinese Military Power

Xi Jinping’s grand goal of transforming the Chinese defense establishment from being big to being strong rests on a three-pronged strategy of reform, innovation, and modernization. Reform refers to undertaking a concerted roots and branch restructuring of the existing defense establishment to improve its readiness and ability to fight and win future wars as well as to ensure its political reliability to the Communist Party. Innovation concerns the development of new, especially novel, ways and means of strengthening China’s military power and influence through hard (such as material, technological, and industrial) and soft (such as normative, strategy and tactics, processes) factors. Modernization is the result of the implementation of the reforms and innovation on the development of defense capabilities.

While these three components of Xi’s military strengthening strategy are being pursued on parallel but separate tracks, there is considerable overlapping and coordination of their activities. Moreover, although these endeavors are occurring concurrently, there are different timeframes set for them. Accomplishing the bulk of structural reforms is targeted for the beginning of the 2020s, while Xi declared at the 19th Party Congress that defense modernization would basically be completed by 2035 and China would become a world class defense innovation power on a par with the United States by 2050.

Reform and modernization have been at the top of the defense establishment’s policy agenda going back to the 1970s, but innovation has only come to the fore since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao emphasized the importance of innovation, especially related to research and development, during their tenures. Xi though has elevated innovation to a core priority and broadened its application to far more military areas than his predecessors did.


Global Implications: Intensifying U.S.-China Technological Competition

The Chinese techno-security state is flourishing and looks set to grow faster, bigger, and better under Xi Jinping’s long-term leadership. While weaknesses such as bureaucratic fragmentation, corruption, political interference, and entrenched corporate interests will complicate progress, there are numerous strengths that will allow the techno-security state to mitigate or overcome these obstacles. They include ample funding and good access to foreign technology and know-how.

The rise of the Chinese techno-security state has triggered deepening concern in the United States that its military technological superiority with China is under mounting threat. This has led to intensifying Sino-US defense technological competition that is likely to become more acute. The U.S. Defense Department has been pursuing a number of initiatives since the early 2010s in an effort to maintain its technological advantages, such as the Third Offset Strategy and the Defense Innovation Initiative that was pursued by the Obama Administration (see Cheung and Mahnken 2018).

While the Trump Administration no longer uses the Third Offset label, it has made clear that it embraces the view that the United States and China are now great power rivals. This is spelled out in the US national defense strategy issued in January 2018 that points out, “as China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future” (U.S. Defense Department 2018).

This competition in the defense domain has also spilled over into the broader U.S.-China technology relationship, especially in areas such as high and strategic technology, communications technology, U.S. and allied curbs on Chinese investment in sensitive technological areas, and restrictions on research and development exchanges. The two countries appear to be spiraling into a technological cold war that has far-reaching negative consequences for not only their techno-security establishments but also for the development of their national innovation capabilities and for the global technological order.




Author’s Biography

Tai Ming Cheung is the director of IGCC and a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, where he teaches courses on Asian security and Chinese security and technology. He is a long-time analyst of Chinese and East Asian defense and national security affairs and was based in Asia from the mid-1980s to 2002 covering political, economic, and strategic developments in greater China. He was also a journalist and political and business risk consultant in Northeast Asia. Cheung received his Ph.D. from the War Studies Department at King’s College, London University. Recent publications include The Gathering Pacific Storm: Emerging US-China Strategic Competition in Defense Technological and Industrial Development (ed., with Thomas Mahnken, Cambria, 2018) and China and Cybersecurity (ed., with Jon Lindsay and Derek Reveron, Oxford, 2015).