An attendant demonstrates a display for an elderly Chinese military veteran at a booth for Chinese telecom provider China Telecom at the PT Expo in Beijing, Sept. 28, 2021.

An attendant demonstrates a display for an elderly Chinese military veteran at a booth for Chinese telecom provider China Telecom at the PT Expo in Beijing, Sept. 28, 2021. AP / Mark Schiefelbein

How China Is Planning For a Tech Decoupling

PLA strategists are already working on counters to anticipated U.S. moves.

PLA strategists are already working on counters to anticipated U.S. moves. 

Rising tensions between the U.S. and China and the recognition of a new kind of race for technological advantage has led Washington to tighten restrictions on Chinese companies’ access to critical technologies and to reevaluate the China-U.S. STEM talent pipeline. China is responding with preparations for a lengthy tech competition and decoupling (what it terms 中美科技脱钩). A notable set of recommendations by Chinese military strategists sheds light on possible policy countermoves.

In July 2021, three PLA analysts presented a research brief that analyzes over 450 policy reports and documents published in the past four years by the U.S. government and the broader policy community and then suggested ways China might respond. The report’s authors say they are affiliated with the “National Innovation Research Institute.” But the lead author, Maj. Gen. Lu Zhoulai, was in 2018 identified as the political commissar of the National Defense S&T Innovation Institute of the Academy of Military Sciences of the People's Liberation Army. This academy is the Chinese Communist Party’s top military research institute; it is believed to formulate “military theory”—doctrine—for the PLA. The innovation institute was established there in 2017 to foster defense S&T development strategies and cutting-edge technologies.

In the report, the analysts warn that the U.S. government and its allies are likely to become more effective and precise in their restrictions. Calling upon the Chinese science-technology-innovation stakeholders to “cast away false hopes” for re-engagement, they argue that China must brace for impact, take immediate actions to minimize damage, and, most importantly, clearly articulate and safeguard China’s long-term “national tech security.”

According to these analysts, Beijing should respond to U.S.-China tech decoupling by broadening ties with and rallying support from the international community in three main ways. First, it should lobby high-tech multinational corporations with significant market share in China, such as Intel, Broadcom, Qualcomm, TSMC, and GlobalFoundries, to continue to exert pressure on the U.S. government. Second, they want to boost cooperation with “smaller but technologically advanced” countries in Europe, and along the “Belt and Road” to support China’s R&D efforts and diversify supply chains. Lastly, they say China should use globally collaborative, crowd-sourced, and open-source models of development to help overcome its longstanding deficiencies in software development.  

The PLA analysts also highlight the importance of the human element in any technology competition. They call for “pivoting from technology acquisition to talent acquisition” as a feasible strategy in a protracted tech war, because “strategic scientists” and “leading scientists” are “more important resources than technology itself.” 

In their eyes, the treatment of Chinese scientists by the U.S. government under programs such as the Department of Justice’s China Initiative may lead Chinese scientists to reconsider whether the United States is the best place to conduct scientific research. China should welcome back these scientists with open arms, they say, by offering recruitment packages and better facilities as well policy support. The PLA analysts also envision China drawing upon more diverse sources of human talent. While previous Chinese policies in attracting overseas scientists and engineers have had mixed results (and COVID and the Chinese government’s strict Visa policies have surely complicated the picture), Chinese policymakers will likely pursue talent acquisition—Chinese nationals, foreign experts, and foreign students—more aggressively on a global scale than before. This aligns with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s remarks that “a global scientific and technological superpower must be able to attract, retain, and make good use of talents on a global scale.” Xi has requested further streamlining of the visa application processes for attracting global talents.

There are also key weaknesses that the PLA strategists feel have to be closed. To address China’s Achilles’ heel in critical technologies, they suggest elevating research and development of high-end chips and industrial software to the level of China’s own Manhattan Project-like sprint to develop atomic and hydrogen bombs, an ICBM, and satellite technology in the 1960s (what was termed the “Two-Bomb, One Satellite” program) —with resources and support to match. This is an area where we have seen numerous recent developments. In August 2020, the founder and CEO of Huawei Ren Zhengfei visited four prominent Chinese universities to establish closer cooperation. In October 2020, the Shanghai government unveiled the “Oriental Chip Port” inside the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, bringing together 40 of China’s top chipmakers and 150 billion yuan ($22.4 billion) in investment. In November 2020, Chinese start-ups reportedly hired executives and engineers from top U.S. chip design toolmakers in an effort to break the U.S.’s near-monopoly on chip design toolmaking. Finally, over 10 top Chinese research universities have established new “schools of integrated circuits” within the past year alone.

The authors also stressed the need for China’s homegrown R&D base to surge ahead by not simply following in the same technology developmental path in areas where the U.S. already has a ten-year lead. This approach, which they dubbed “leapfrogging by switching lanes” (换道超车), essentially entails pursuing non-traditional approaches to achieving breakthroughs in critical technologies. For example, they argue that China’s lack of progress in silicon-based semiconductors or ultraviolet lithography can be mitigated if Chinese researchers were to explore non-traditional approaches such as carbon-based semiconductors, super-resolution imaging, or other innovative solutions. They argue that such “outside the box” solutions are what will enable China to achieve parity or even overtake the U.S. in critical technologies.  

Perhaps as a move to foster the kind of efforts envisioned by these authors, in May 2021, the Ministry of Education (MOE) approved the creation of “Schools of Future Technology” in twelve leading Chinese research universities and announced plans to build more in the next four years. Chinese policymakers hope that these new schools, many of which have already begun student enrollment this September, will produce top-of-the-class talent capable of leading China's S&T development in the next 10 to 15 years, particularly in the fields of “cutting-edge, revolutionary and disruptive technologies.” Based on details released by these 12 universities, these schools will target domains and areas identified as national strategic priorities such as aerospace, artificial intelligence, quantum information science, marine technology, and health and life sciences. The establishment of these schools has also been interpreted by some Chinese researchers as a way to prepare for an eventuality of Chinese STEM students no longer having access to education opportunities in top U.S. institutions.

The strategy laid out by the PLA researchers shows the pathways that China will likely follow during the long-term technology competition now envisioned by leaders on both sides. As U.S. policymakers consider additional legislation and policies to strengthen our competitiveness with China, it is important to understand their counter-strategy and make appropriate policy adjustments. Effective U.S. policies will address the critical issue of tech transfer and strengthen the long-term sustainability of our own R&D efforts—bearing in mind the expected Chinese pivots. It will be vital to sustain U.S. advantages in attracting and retaining talent. It will also be important to build understanding with the business community and global partners about the role that they choose to play in these two competing strategic visions.

Alex Stone is an analyst with BluePath Labs, a DC-based consulting company that focuses on research, analysis, disruptive technologies, and wargaming. Alex was the lead author of "China’s Military Civil Fusion Strategy: A View from Chinese Strategists," published in June 2020 with the China Aerospace Studies Institute, which examined that strategy’s full ambition and scope.

P.W. Singer is Strategist at New America.

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