China – A Technology Super Power by 2050?

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The World is focused on Chinese economy growing at a scorching pace of over 10 percent for the past decade. The Chinese increasingly denote their economic size in trillions rather than billions, the first sign of a global power of consequence.

Behind this supra capability building however are hidden roots of a technology super power which are seldom noticed. Chinese focus on development of strategic technologies will denote Beijing taking up the lead in many spheres by the middle of the 21st Century. This will be a remarkable achievement unparalleled in human history. While Western countries attained technology superiority in the industrial age through centuries of investment in education, research, development and pioneering, the Chinese model denotes how an objective oriented strategy can attain the same results in a much shorter period of time.

The key to Chinese technology competence is development of niches in fields which provide it competitive advantage. China is thus content to let other countries control technology though not necessarily production in mass produced goods such as cars or cell phones. It wants to retain edge in technologies in complex fields such as space, nuclear energy, ballistic missiles and satellites which will provide it the lead in times to come.

China’s satellite killer test has been well documented, what is little known is that it has developed capabilities in other anti satellite technologies such as jamming which will provide it an edge in the years ahead. Another important gain is in the field of cyber warfare. Chinese scholars in their seminal work, “Unrestricted Warfare” had indicated almost a decade ago as to how developing asymmetric capabilities would enable China overcome some of the disadvantages of the industrial age.

By a systematic analysis, China continued to invest in capabilities that will provide it an edge on a modern battlefield in the information age. Thus we find the Chinese were one of the first to field information warfare units.

Militarily China would be able to do catch up with Taiwan by 2010 – that is just three years away as per assessment made by the Jane’s Defence Weekly a few days ago. While its capability may appear regionally oriented at present, China is set to expand its global reach for which an estimate of 2050 may not be far fetched.

Some of the Chinese capability building is in fields that may seem quite antiquated by Western standards. For instance the project to build an aircraft carrier or a large size passenger and cargo plane may be passe for Washington or Brussels. But in an age when not many new advanced aircraft or carriers are being manufactured, Beijing may be able to attain significant advantages in the years ahead.

The Chinese are well aware that the path to technology superiority is not likely to be easy. The ability of the Chinese to conceptualize, have a long term view at the same time establish time bound markers for achievement of objectives and goals facilitates progress in diverse fields.

For instance in Space technologies, the Chinese White Paper on Space has clearly delineated concepts and time lines for progress providing Beijing a standard by which to measure its achievements. Willingness to invest in strategic technologies is another strength which is typical of the Chinese. Beijing knows that technology competence is prohibitively expensive and also competitive. The large amount of resources poured by the Chinese in space and nuclear technologies which have dual use has been a cause of concern for the United States over the years.

On the other hand China is not shy of acquiring technology from its erstwhile ideological partner Russia or other countries including Japan and the United States. Russia is China’s most trusted and favoured weapons supplier providing it state of the art aircraft and shipping capabilities including fighters and hovercraft. Other less responsive countries are tapped through innovative diplomatic and non diplomatic means. China is acutely conscious of sensitivities of other countries and is assiduous in maintaining proportionate relationship in this sphere. It is also very quick and sensitive to react to any insinuations of threats being developed through capacity building. A battery of Chinese researchers most avidly counters each theory of threat building point by point, building a welter of logic which appears irrefutable.

Apparently there is no way that the West can counter the Chinese rise as a technology power by 2050. Cooperative engagement may appear a better strategy for despite its burgeoning ambitions, Beijing has many technology blind spots which it cannot overcome without the help of the West.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.