Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army's Honour Guard Battalion wear protective masks as they stand at attention in front of photo of China's president Xi Jinping at their barracks outside the Forbidden City, near Tiananmen Square

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army's Honour Guard Battalion wear protective masks as they stand at attention in front of photo of China's president Xi Jinping at their barracks outside the Forbidden City, near Tiananmen Square Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy: What to Expect in the Next Five Years

Even as the term has all but disappeared from official documents, its tenets are being strengthened and extended.

As a new administration takes power in Washington, Beijing is preparing its next Five-Year Plan, which will set overall guidance for policies and national development goals through 2025. The final version is expected in March, but the world received a teaser about policy priorities for the next five years and beyond when the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee released its Recommendations on the Plan last October. One section of the Recommendations is particularly relevant for China’s Military-Civil Fusion strategy, the future trajectory of which is a key issue for the incoming Biden administration.  

As one of the hallmark policy initiatives of the Xi Jinping administration, MCF is envisioned as a state governance tool to balance the goals of security and development, directly supporting China’s ability to prevail in a long-term strategic competition. In the near term, Beijing is attempting to have both “guns and butter,” creating synergy between central and local government regulatory agencies, military end-users, and defense, civilian, and commercial R&D ecosystems in critical domains. The longer-term goal is to unify the government’s various security and development strategies to create a strategic posture—a “unified system of strategies and strategic capability”—that can bring all of China’s capabilities to bear in competitions with other nations. By design, MCF is not simply another yet national plan, but rather a strategy whose components are to be woven into China’s other national strategic priorities, advancing the PRC’s overarching security and development goals.

The MCF strategy has been featured prominently in Party, state, and military policy discussions and documents since 2014, but since early last year, the strategy has “gone into stealth mode.” Part of the reason is growing interest, even direct criticism, from current and former senior U.S. leaders and members of the policy community. Their top concern is that the MCF policy, in concert with China’s National Intelligence Law and other statutes, can help the PLA absorb critical and emerging technologies from civilian channels. As a result, it has become wrapped up into debates on everything from supply chain security to Chinese investment in Western tech firms.

Publicly, China responded with a declaration by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson that its MCF strategy is completely above-board.  But the Recommendations for the 14th Five-Year Plan notably stripped explicit references to MCF. Instead of using the more sensitive term, the Recommendations referenced “unity between the PLA and the people,” harkening back to Mao Zedong’s early writings on civil-military relations.

While slightly altering the framing of the strategy’s short-term goals to avoid directly referencing MCF, the Recommendations otherwise remained in line with the strategy. The document continued to call for the coordinated development of critical and emergent domains, a significant component of the MCF strategy’s ambitious development framework formulated in 2016 and 2017. It also repeated the strategy’s long-term goal, as first articulated by Xi Jinping in 2017: to “build up China’s unified system of strategies and strategic capability.” One way to interpret this statement is that the MCF strategy has achieved its near-term goal of building the institutional infrastructure and connective tissues that support its implementation and has entered its next stage of development. 

However, we should not take that as evidence that the implementation of MCF has been a total success. Elsa Kania and Lorand Laskai have noted in Defense One that MCF is hardly a fait accompli. As a relatively new strategy, Chinese authorities are in the middle of developing their own metrics for assessing the progress of implementing MCF. The National Bureau of Statistics of China, for example, launched a campaign around June 2020 to gather “MCF development data” in key provinces but notes that the results will not be made public due to national security concerns.

Potentially important for the future of both China and any great power competition with the U.S., the Recommendations singled out several efforts from the original MCF development framework for the new Five-Year Plan, including reform of the defense S&T industrial base, which has been described as a “top priority” by MCF researchers and government officials. The reform includes a slew of measures to restructure state-owned defense contractors and remove barriers to entry for commercial companies to boost manufacturing capability and capacity and spur defense innovation. (U.S. defense leaders would note the parallel challenge in their own system.) Such restructuring, privatization, and mergers and acquisitions of the prime defense contractors and their subsidiaries in China will have another side effect: making it more difficult for outsiders to track and understand China’s defense industrial landscape. This will force the U.S. and its allies to devote more resources to continuous monitoring of these business activities. 

The Recommendations also highlighted coordinated development in key regions and called for concerted efforts on national defense megaprojects. A September visit by senior government official Liu He to Mianyang, Sichuan, offers clues as to what this might entail. Sometimes described as a “Highland of MCF Innovation,” Mianyang is a hotbed of defense innovation and home to the China Academy of Engineering Physics—China’s equivalent of Los Alamos National Laboratory. This signals that regions and areas like Mianyang, which feature concentrations of defense industries and related research institutions, will likely receive stronger support in the next five years.  This also fits the pattern of China investing in developing tech clusters and attracting top talent to give it an edge in S&T development for the next five years and beyond.

Notably, the Recommendations made standardization a priority, perhaps to coordinate with the China Standards 2035 action plan. Since the mid-2010s, the MCF effort has sought to improve overall compatibility between defense and civilian infrastructure and systems. This effort to resolve incompatibilities between China’s national technical standards and military standards that slowed the integration of defense and civilian R&D ecosystems has ramifications for the U.S. and its allies. By setting the global standards for the next generation of technologies, in line with their own military standards, Chinese leaders see themselves as ensuring that China has a leading position both in tech and in global affairs. 

Finally, the Recommendations renewed emphasis on the development of the national defense mobilization system, previously the least-well articulated part of the original MCF strategy. The Recommendations called for building a stronger border defense, national defense education for all, and a stronger sense of solidarity between the military and local governments and civilians. Chinese leaders believe that bringing all of these assets to bear will be essential to sustaining a wartime footing and prevailing in a conflict. 

In sum, while the term itself may have disappeared from Chinese government pronouncements, military-civil fusion remains a central part of China’s five-year planning and overall grand strategy. Therefore, as they plan their own, U.S. policymakers in the incoming Biden administration should have a clear-eyed view of what it means for both China and the United States. 

Alex Stone is an analyst with BluePath Labs, a DC-based consulting company that focuses on research, analysis, disruptive technologies, and wargaming.

P.W. Singer is Strategist at New America and the author of multiple books on technology and security.