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Ambitious China firms military and commercial R&D ties

When all else fails - copy the US

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China will try to copy the US in any way it can in the hopes of improving the country's technology might.

The Pentagon on Monday released a fresh assessment on the PRC's military muscle. Throughout the 66-page report, the US outlines various techniques China employs and hopes to employ in order to boost its technology prowess. Those methods include a better working relationship between the Chinese military and businesses, espionage and more research and development into cutting edge technology such as microprocessors and nanotechnology.

On one front, China appears set on mimicking the post-World War II path followed by the US around research and development.

The US government, for example, developed an enduring affinity for the scientists that helped it win World War II. That newfound respect for the skills of scientists translated into tighter links between the military and researchers, as well as an increase in funding pushed out from the Defense Department to universities and companies. Over the years, the exchange of technology between the military, universities and private sectors has resulted into major gains for the US - some obvious examples being the klystron, microprocessors and the internet.

According to the Pentagon, China too has zeroed in on so-called dual-use technology that caters to military and public use at the same time. The report cites President Hu Jintao promising to "blaze a path of development with Chinese characteristics featuring military and civilian integration."

China has already demonstrated impressive work in the shipbuilding and defense electronics sectors, resulting from the shared needs of its military and commercial operations. And now the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is benefiting from information technology work as well.

"Information technology companies, including Huawei, Datang, and Zhongxing maintain close ties to the PLA and collaborate on research and development," the report states. "Commercial off-the-shelf technologies, such as computer network switches and routers, increasingly provide the PLA with state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment."

Meanwhile, China's ability to advance microprocessor and aviation technology has suffered due to a lack of commercial work in the silicon field and a reluctance to form partnerships with either multi-national corporations or domestic firms in aviation, according to the report.

Of course, when innovation fails and a lack of commercial aid persists, you can always turn to espionage.

US officials often present claims that numerous attacks on military and commercial networks originate in the PRC. "Officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) have identified China as running an aggressive and wide-ranging effort aimed at acquiring advanced technologies from the United States," the report states. "Similarly, officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have referred to China as the leading espionage threat to the United States."

The US suspects China of using espionage to make gains in the software, integrated circuit, computing, electronics, telecommunications and information security sectors in an effort to shift the PLA "into an information-based, network-enabled force."

And sometimes the PRC employs a nice mix of innovation, investment and espionage to meet its goals.

China also harvests spin-offs from foreign direct investment and joint ventures in the civilian sector, technical knowledge and expertise of students returned from abroad, and state sponsored industrial espionage to increase the level of technologies available to support military research, development, and acquisition.

Beijing’s long-term goal is to create a wholly indigenous defense industrial sector able to meet the needs of PLA modernization as well as to compete as a top-tier producer in the global arms trade. China is already competitive in some areas, such as communications, with leading international defense firms.

Looking forward, the US expects the PRC to focus its research and development attention on five main areas: "material design and preparation, manufacturing in extreme environmental conditions, aeronautic and astronautic mechanics, information technology development, and nanotechnology research."

As the report notes, China has shown an ability to transform from laggard to hero in some of these areas in a very short amount of time. "China has gone from virtually no research or funding in nanotechnologies and processes five years ago, to being a close second to the United States in total government investment."

  • Information Technology: priorities include intelligent perception technologies, ad hoc networks, and virtual reality technologies.
  • New Materials: priorities include smart materials and structures, high-temperature superconducting technologies, and highly efficient energy materials technologies.
  • Advanced Manufacturing: priorities include extreme manufacturing technologies and intelligent service robots.
  • Advanced Energy Technologies: priorities include hydrogen energy and fuel cell technologies, alternative fuels, and advanced vehicle technologies.
  • Marine Technologies: priorities include three-dimensional maritime environmental monitoring technologies, fast, multi-parameter ocean floor survey technologies, and deep-sea operations technologies.
  • Laser and Aerospace Technologies are also high priorities.

Along with the five fields of importance, China has flagged 16 "major special items" in which it would like to produce homegrown advances. These include high-end chips, operating system software, next-generation wireless broadband technology, large aircraft, high-resolution satellites, manned spaceflight and lunar exploration.

According to the Defense Department, China will fund these various projects with massive amounts of military spending. The Pentagon estimates China's 2007 military spending at between $97bn and $139bn, although $139bn doesn't buy you what it used to.

You can catch the full report here. ®

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