The Chinese government has continued to enhance its military capabilities and in recent years, it has steadily invested to transform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a true world-class fighting force. Earlier this year, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) became the largest naval force in the world, and China has steadily been working to develop cutting edge aircraft, missiles and even small arms.

Another area where Beijing has focused is in cyber warfare, and last month, the National Security Agency (NSA) issued a cybersecurity advisory that warned of Chinese state-sponsored activities targeting American companies, including those that work closely with the U.S. government. The PLA had even operated a special unit, known as PLA Unit 61398, which was believed to have conducted a series of cyber attacks against western companies at the behest of Beijing. In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) announced that a Federal grand jury returned an indictment of five 61398 officers for the theft of confidential business information and intellectual property from U.S. commercial firms.

Cyber and Outer Space

While Beijing has pledged not to use espionage for its economic benefit, it appears that China is doubling down with its cyber efforts. According to a Japanese Defense Ministry think tank, the Chinese military is now aiming to utilize cutting-edge technologies including private sector-developed artificial intelligence, which could be used to enhance its offensive capabilities in cyberspace and in out space.

China has made its intentions to become the global leader of artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030, and it has steadily increased its efforts in its development.

According to the China Security Report 2021, which was cited by The Japan Times, the PLA is building up its interference and strike capabilities, which could be used to prevent the U.S. military’s use of both the cyber and space domains. The report noted that the rivalry Washington and Beijing has increased along with competition for technological hegemony.

The United States has sought to limit aiding China’s efforts – including not allowing the flow of technology to Beijing. Washington restricted the export of semiconductors to Huawei Technologies, as the Chinese telecom firm has sought to expand its dominance in the next-generation 5G wireless technology sector. Already, products from Huawei – along with those of another Chinese firm ZTE – have been banned for use in government networks as well as those of government contractors in the United States.

The Power of AI

China’s investment in AI could threaten the security of the United States, as it might erode Washington’s technological advantage.

Speaking at the Department of Defense’s AI Symposium and Exposition last month, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned, “The Chinese Communist Party recognizes the transformational power of AI.”

The Pentagon’s recently released annual report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020” laid out that Beijing seeks a strategy to employ commercial as well as military organizations to achieve a major breakthrough in AI by 2025 with a goal to become the world leader by 2030.

According to a report from National Defense Magazine, Eric Schmidt – former executive chairman and CEO of Google and chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence – has said that the situation is quite dire, as China is rapidly closing on the U.S. in terms of AI development. At this point the U.S. isn’t a decade or more ahead, but just a year or two.

Even as the leading AI research is still conducted in the U.S., China is making up ground steadily and there is a very valid danger that Beijing could overtake American efforts.

A C4I Problem

The Pentagon report addressed that China has continued to prioritize “Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence” or “C4I,” as a response to trends in modern warfare that emphasize the importance of rapid information sharing, processing, and decision-making. This has allowed China’s PLA to modernize both technologically and organizationally, and to command complex, joint operations.

The report suggested, “These technical improvements are notably boosting PLA operational flexibility and responsiveness. As the PLA continues to focus on its ability to fight and win informatized wars, future information systems will likely implement emerging technologies such as big data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence (AI), and cloud computing to provide reliable, automated platforms yielding further process efficiencies. The PLA has already begun this process by embracing big data analytics that fuse a variety of data to improve automation and to create a comprehensive, real-time picture.”

A People Solution

China has been able to make up ground, said Schmidt, because it has five-times as many people, and the PRC has increased its focus on STEM education. While Beijing once saw its large population as an issue, it is now utilizing it to allow a greater focus on technological modernization.

Additionally, there are now incentives within China’s research community to publish papers. This certainly isn’t Mao’s China any longer, and while the quality of the research may not be on par with that of the west, the numbers favor China.

The U.S. will not simply let Beijing overtake it with AI. The U.S. Army has been developing a masters program with Carnegie Mellon University that could dually train young officers in AI, and also improve their coding skills. The Army AI Task Force, established in 2019, is located in Pittsburgh’s “Robotics Row” and works alongside the Army Futures Command. It is just one of the significant steps forward in the U.S. Army’s utilization of AI – and it highlights how the arms races of the 21st century will include more than tanks and aircraft, while the stakes have never been higher.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.