14 Jul 2021
At the Nexus of Military-Civil Fusion and Technological Innovation in China
By Audrey Fritz
Internationally, universities and commercial enterprises serve as primary vehicles for innovation. China’s innovation strategy adheres to a similar concept, employing universities and companies to serve as the foundation for the country’s innovation. When placed in the context of China’s military-civil fusion strategy, however, Beijing’s drive to innovate using its civilian universities and enterprises is in lockstep with its drive to accelerate innovation for its defense sector.
Although focused domestically, the innovation strategy’s interdependence with China’s military-civil fusion system enables it to leverage the global research and development network of the country’s own companies and universities. The intersection of military-civil fusion and China’s innovation strategy puts international commercial and academic research partnerships focused on dual-use technologies at risk of contributing to China’s defense capabilities.
Recent research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute tracks the global expansion of 27 Chinese technology companies. Many of these companies have links to the Chinese Communist Party and have also been found to engage in the research and development of military-civil fusion applications. Due to the global reach of many of these technology companies, they play a pivotal role in achieving China’s innovation goals.
One means for companies to contribute to military-civil fusion development is through providing technologies developed for civilian use to the defense sector. Hikvision, one of the companies included in “Mapping China’s Tech Giants,” has extensive ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), reportedly supplying products to its procurement department until 2015. Beyond supplying the PLA, Hikvision has also openly discussed its military-civil fusion work at a forum on military-civil fusion in China’s aerospace sector, hosted by defense aerospace conglomerate China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The forum brought together representatives from the military, local governments, military enterprises, scientific research institutes, and private enterprises with the intention to enable military-civil communication, technological integration and to create a “dual engine” for the military and civilian sectors.
Another means for private enterprises to engage in military-civil fusion is through conducting research and development on dual-use technologies. Alibaba’s collaboration with state-owned defense conglomerate Norinco Group serves as an example of private enterprises partaking in the development of dual-use technologies. In 2019, the two entities collaborated on BeiDou Navigation Satellite System applications — a technology referred to by Chinese military media as a model of military-civil fusion. In 2015, Alibaba and Norinco Group first jointly established Qianxun Spatial Intelligence Inc, which relies on the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System for its services.
Similarly, Baidu has reportedly partnered with defense conglomerate China Electronics Technology Group Corp’s 28th Research Institute to establish a joint lab for intelligent command and control technologies to collaborate on military-civil fusion projects in areas such as big data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence.
Although these military-civil fusion collaborations are domestic partnerships, they have global implications. Despite innovation dominance and technology independence being key drivers of military-civil fusion, China remains at this stage reliant on access to the international science and technology ecosystem to drive pursuit of its long-term goals. Chinese companies and universities are well positioned to utilize their status internationally to meet these domestic innovation goals. Through research partnerships, joint ventures, surveillance equipment, data centers, and telecommunications infrastructure, among many other forms of overseas presence, enterprises and universities are able to harness international talent, technology, and experience for domestic innovation application.
To place these examples of companies in context, China’s innovation system can be understood as using a three-tiered framework. First, military-civil fusion creates the innovation ecosystem for modernizing the national defense and national economic systems; second, the National Innovation-Driven Development Strategy drives the country’s innovation priorities; and third, universities and the commercial sector serve as the foundation for the science and technology innovation system.
The interconnected nature of this system is portrayed in a piece by Chinese news agency Xinhua, which noted in 2019 that Xi Jinping perceives both innovation and military-civil fusion as integral to China’s overall national development. More specifically, the country’s development relies on both science and technology innovation and military-civil fusion, where science and technology innovation serves as the key to the success of military-civil fusion.
Due to the foundational role of universities and enterprises in this innovation system, providing these institutions with the resources and prestige necessary to drive the country’s innovation has become a priority. Under China’s 2016 Innovation-Driven Development Strategy — and reiterated in the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan — the Chinese Communist Party emphasizes the need to establish both world-class innovation-orientated companies and world-class universities and curricula to cultivate talent who are then able to lead the country in meeting its ambitious innovation goals.
Through prior university development plans (including the 211 Project, 985 Project, and the Double First-Class Universities Plan), Chinese universities have been guided toward becoming “world-class” institutions. Recent research from ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Center highlights the importance of China’s “Double First-Class” universities, revealing their roles in contributing to military-civil fusion and their collaborations with the commercial sector.
These collaborations are identified as industry-university-research alliances, which are a means of promoting the two-way transfer of military-civil technology for military-civil fusion. China’s Southern University of Science and Technology serves as one example of a university that leverages such collaborations. It hosts a technology transfer center that is responsible for facilitating university-industry collaboration and seeks to collaborate with “well-known” overseas research institutes to support the technology transfer of research outcomes.
As China’s companies are increasingly expected to become involved in military scientific research, production, and maintenance, military-civil fusion and the country’s innovation strategy sheds light on the critical role of universities and the commercial sector in China’s civilian and national defense developments.