On October 16, 2022, at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP), Chinese President Xi Jinping presented a report on behalf of the 19th CCP Central Committee. An important point in this was regarding the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to Xi, expeditiously upgrading the PLA to a ‘world-class’ force is the need of the hour for the country. He mentioned his resolve to speed up the integrated development of the PLA through the means of “mechanization, informatization, and the application of smart technologies”.
Indeed, the PLA is aiming to leverage the advanced technology for its application of unmanned weapons and AI. During the 19th Congress in 2017, Xi had mentioned that by 2020, PLA will attain mechanisation and make significant progress in informatisation. He had also stressed on the enhancement of the strategic capabilities of the PLA. To these, he has now added “intelligentisation”. Intelligentisation is “the uniquely Chinese concept of applying AI’s machine speed and processing power to military planning, operational command, and decision support”. The Chinese leadership has grasped the interconnection between mechanisation, informatisation, and intelligentisation. This “three-izations” concept of the PLA aims to achieve parallel, stage by stage and significant progress in military modernisation.
Informatisation is one of the crucial benchmarks for the PLA’s military modernisation. It learnt the intricacies of informatisation during the 1991 Gulf War when the United States repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. With this, the US set an example of a technologically advanced military campaign. With acquisition of information on a real-time basis from the battlefield, American military commanders were able to design a precision strike military campaign.
China’s quest for technological dominance on the battlefield dates to 2015. A policy document issued by China titled Made in China 2025 and a 2017 released document titled New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan underlined the importance given by the Chinese government with regard to the development of AI and related technologies. With the help of the AI and its applications in the military domain, China aims to surpass the US in the field of technological dominance specifically in terms of military superiority. It is no secret that the advanced AI technologies if applied in the military field can pose great amount of deterrence and also in warfare.
China is aiming to achieve military modernisation of PLA to a stage where it is fully automated and computerised by 2027. China will be focusing on C4ISR for PLA i.e., command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. The aim of PLA is to be prepared for symmetric, asymmetric and also cyber space warfare. Across all services of PLA, China has put large number of robotic and unmanned systems, advanced missiles with precision guidance which possess autonomy to a limited extent. PLA Army is working on unmanned vehicles for the logistical purpose, PLA Navy is focusing on unmanned surface vessels and submarines whereas PLA Airforce is working on unmanned systems. The PLA Rocket Force aims to develop full-pledged remote sensing, target identification, and decision support. For the space domain, PLA Strategic Force is working on enhancing the AI capabilities for its electronic, cyber and space as well as psychological warfare.
The strategic considerations behind the drive towards the advancement of the technology also include the so-called reunification of Taiwan as China has been quite persuasive with this goal under Xi. Civil-military fusion of technology is another feature behind this technological pursuit. China understands the reality that the fusion between the private and public sectors is going to be influential in terms of technological leadership in the world. Hence, Beijing has been instrumental in encouraging private-sector companies in the development of AI and other critical technologies. These companies are also offered subsidies by the government.
However, this path is not an easy one. There are several limitations to its approach. It is believed that China is overlooking the various vulnerabilities that come with AI and is putting too much confidence in its capabilities. A very small segment of the PLA has modern and advanced equipment whereas most of the Chinese troops still possess outdated equipment. There are also possibilities that this rhetoric is politically motivated and is overestimated, and hence the impact that it can have cannot be trusted as of now.
Summing up, China has long-term strategic goals amongst which the major ones include competing and surpassing the US, dominating the Indo-Pacific, and capturing Taiwan and unifying it with the People’s Republic of China. Xi clearly mentioned these during the 20th Party Congress that Taiwan is China’s issue and if needed it will acquire Taiwan by military means. Apart from these, Chinese ambitions to lead the global technology sector in every aspect remain ever determined. Given these scenarios, Beijing is and will be putting every effort possible into this task. However, the feasibility and achievability of such ambitious goals remain questionable given the challenges and limitations that China faces.
 “AI weapons” in China’s military innovation (brookings.edu)DoD’s 2021 China Military Power Report: How Advances in AI and Emerging Technologies Will Shape China’s Military | Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org)